- The number of unaccompanied migrant children reaching the US Southern border is rising.
- Overall migrant encounters have also increased due to a yearlong backlog stemming from COVID-19.
- Experts say there are four key steps the Biden administration should take to address the situation.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The number of unaccompanied migrant children detained at the US Southern border has more than tripled in the past few weeks, straining facilities and ramping up pressure on the Biden administration to address the situation.
But while the thousands of children being held in Customs and Border Protection facilities may harken back to the horrifying images of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, immigration experts say the reality of the current border situation is more complicated than a simple “crisis.”
What’s happening and why?
The number of unaccompanied migrant children detained at the border has continued to rise throughout the first three months of 2021. According to senior administration officials, Customs and Border Patrol had approximately 4,500 unaccompanied minors in holding as of Thursday, while the Department of Health and Human Services has more than 9,000 children currently in its care.
Nearly 3,000 of the children detained by Border Patrol have been held beyond the 72-hour limit permitted by federal law before a child must be moved to an HHS facility, CBS News reported Tuesday.
But the increased numbers go beyond just children. Border agents encountered approximately 100,000 individuals attempting to enter the country in the month of February – a 28% increase over January, according to senior administration officials. January saw nearly 78,000 migrant encounters, a rate more than doubled from the same time last year, The New York Times reported.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, told Insider the border is seeing an increased number of migrants, in part, because of a backlog of people who have not been allowed in to the country over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the coronavirus pandemic took hold in spring 2020, former President Donald Trump implemented a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulation known as Title 42 that effectively halted all crossings at the border in the name of COVID-19 prevention.
Since taking office in January, President Joe Biden has mostly maintained the policy, lifting the order for unaccompanied minors, allowing only children to cross and presenting a heartbreaking choice for migrant parents who reach the border: full family expulsion or send their child across alone.
Experts say Biden’s partial repeal of Title 42 has contributed to the increase in unaccompanied minors, while its year-long existence has led to a backlog resulting in the higher number of overall border encounters so far this year.
The increase could also stem in part from a friendlier administration, according to Southern Border Communities Coalition steering committee member Pedro Rios, who said some immigrants may see the Biden administration as a more welcoming government, though Rios stressed he was hesitant to suggest Biden was the “absolute” reason behind increasing migrant numbers.
In fact, Biden spoke directly to Central American migrants in a televised interview this week, rejecting that notion and telling them: “Don’t come over.”
“I heard the idea that they’re coming because I’m a nice guy,” he said.
But experts say that’s not quite the case.
Is the current border situation really a crisis for the administration? Or a pattern?
According to three immigration experts that Insider spoke with the situation is not yet a “crisis.”
“We’ve had higher numbers in the past and every time something like this happens, they call it a crisis, or a surge, or an influx,” Carol Anne Donohoe, managing attorney for Al Otro Lado’s family reunification program, said. “How many crises, surges, and influxes do you have before you say this is actually a pattern and we should do something proactively?”
Senior administration officials echoed that idea in a media call Thursday.
“Children presenting themselves at the border is not a national crisis,” one official said. “January 20 was not the moment that all of a sudden the border looked differently. Numbers increase and decrease all the time.”
Vicki Gaubeca, Southern Border Communities Coalition director, told Insider the situation is neither new nor unexpected, though the pandemic has complicated the response typically led by non-governmental organizations and volunteers at the border.
“I don’t think people should be panicking, it’s not a crisis,” Gaubeca said. “I agree with the Biden administration, it’s just a challenge that we need to figure out how to address.”
Earlier this month, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas denied there was a “crisis” at the border, calling the situation a “challenge.”
Gelernt agreed, saying the federal government has more than enough resources to handle the numbers, which are not historically high.
He also cautioned that the numbers could be misleading. Border counts of encounters and apprehensions don’t reflect the number of individuals seeking to enter the country, but instead, account for each incident, which often results in the same individual being counted multiple times.
Though he doesn’t think the current border circumstances constitute a crisis for the federal government, Gelernt did stress that the ongoing situation is a humanitarian crisis.
During his presidential campaign, Biden presented himself as the more humane immigration candidate. Now, the president faces growing political and public pressure to address the situation and avoid the horrifying aspects of the Trump administration’s immigration efforts.
Here are four steps immigration experts say the Biden administration should take to avoid a real crisis.
End Title 42
All four experts agreed – the first and fastest step Biden can take to address the growing number of unaccompanied minors is to revoke the Trump-era holdover order.
Citing public health concerns, Trump invoked Title 42 last March, expelling all people apprehended between ports of entry and effectively eliminating migrants’ right to seek asylum in the US.
“We expected the Biden administration to eliminate that policy. It has not done so for adults or families yet, though it has for unaccompanied children,” Gelernt said. “Advocates throughout the country are becoming impatient.”
Ending Title 42 would allow parents and children to enter the country together and would restore asylum seekers’ right to a hearing.
Additionally, the Trump administration’s invocation of Title 42 likely did little to slow the spread of the virus, according to Donohoe and Gelernt, who both noted the federal government overruled the Centers for Disease Control last March when the agency’s top doctor told federal officials there was no evidence that implementing Title 42 would slow the spread.
Donohoe said the CDC has made it clear that border activities can continue safely if migrants are tested for COVID-19 and quarantined after crossing.
“I would argue that if we were concerned about immigrants and public health and all of that, we wouldn’t have our ICE detention facilities filled during a pandemic,” Donohoe said. “So my only guess is that this is a way to stem the flow of immigrants and asylum seekers.”
The ACLU is currently in discussions to settle a lawsuit over Title 42, Gelernt told Insider.
“We hope that the Biden administration is not allowing politics to interfere with its decision to provide families with asylum hearings and likewise, hope that the Biden administration is not using a public health measure to control migration flows unrelated to public health requirements,” Gelernt said.
Provide more funding and resources for holistic border support
Experts also encouraged the Biden administration to increase federal funding and resources to both address the growing numbers of migrants and avoid the horrific conditions that often come with influxes.
The agency in charge of processing asylum seekers – Customs and Border Protection – isn’t known for its welcoming demeanor, according to Gaubeca, who said the agency’s union was openly supportive of Trump both times he ran.
“I think they like the idea of just being enforcement only. They don’t like having to take care of unaccompanied children,” Gaubeca said. “Border patrol wasn’t trained to take care of families.”
As a result, Gaubeca said the Biden administration should direct resources toward creating community-based welcoming centers staffed by medical professionals, trauma specialists, and childcare specialists.
Gelernt also stressed the need for more funding, urging the administration to coordinate with NGOs working around the border that have been preparing for increased migrant numbers for months. These organizations are ready to COVID-test families, house migrants, and provide basic necessities, according to Gelernt, but they need coordination from the Biden administration to do so successfully.
Gaubeca advocated for targeted federal funding toward addressing the root causes of mass migration – a step she said the Biden administration has already started to take by including money to address violence in Central America in its US Citizenship Act of 2021.
Don’t place children in carceral settings and keep their stays short
The surest way for the Biden administration to avoid the public outcry of 2018 that stemmed from immigrant children in cages is to simply keep kids out of cages, experts said.
Children should not be placed in carceral settings or unlicensed facilities, according to Donohoe and Gelernt, but instead should be kept in child-appropriate settings with small group settings and a high staff-to-child ratio.
“The idea is not to warehouse hundreds of children in one location,” Donohoe said. “It’s to spread them out into more home-like settings until…they can do their due diligence to find a sponsor or a safe foster family.”
A senior administration official said Thursday that the seven-day average length of care for unaccompanied migrant children in HHS facilities is 34 days. The official said the administration is committed to trying to reduce that number.
Donohoe and Gelernt both encouraged the administration to focus on quickly locating sponsors or relatives for unaccompanied children and to keep their detainment short. In order to expedite that process, other immigrants in the country acting as sponsors shouldn’t be made to feel afraid to come forward and claim a child, Donohoe said.
For-profit emergency shelters have drawn criticism from immigration experts who decry the centers’ lack of transparency and less-than-stellar conditions. While most child migrant facilities are subject to state licensing requirements, according to The Washington Post, temporary surge centers like the Texas tent facility, Carrizo, that the Biden administration reopened late last month, are not.
Licensed facilities are also more cost-efficient and well-regulated than overflow facilities, according to Donohoe, who said privately-run overflow facilities cost between $850 and $1,000 a day per child while licensed facilities cost between $200 to $300.
Still, she cautioned people against latching on to easy sound bites like “kids in cages.”
“Cages come in many forms,” Donohoe said. “It doesn’t make it any better that it has cement walls versus a chain-link fence.”
Change the public perception of the border
Conversations about immigrants coming to the US often rely on water imagery and metaphors – like “surge” “flood,” “flow,” “stream,” and “waves” – according to Rios, who said that language tends to degrade and dehumanize the people who are migrating and their reasons for doing so.
“I think it takes away from some of the structural problems that are causing the reasons for why people are migrating,” Rios told Insider.
The other experts agreed.
“I do think there’s a shift in how we can talk about the border, not as being a place that needs to be secured but as a place that needs to be managed better,” Gaubeca said. “Changing the narrative about what the border is is really important.”
According to Donohoe, two institutions have a key role to play in changing that narrative: the Biden administration and the media.
“Public perception is driven by the press and what the administration says,” she said. “And I think any administration is hyper-aware of that.”
Calling the situation a “crisis” or a “surge” emboldens conservatives to ramp up criticism over Biden’s handling of immigration, according to Donohoe, who said that public disapproval and resulting panic often leads to the creation of more overflow facilities and harsher policies.
For four years Trump “dehumanized” immigrant populations and propagated a narrative that migrants were coming to take advantage of the US, Gelernt said. As a result, Biden now has a responsibility to change the narrative about who these people are and why they’re coming, according to the attorney.
“I would urge people to try not to think of immigrants in the abstract, but to think about the immigrant you know,” Gelernt said.
How confident are experts the Biden administration will take these steps?
Donohoe, Gaubeca, and Gelernt all signaled they were cautiously optimistic about the Biden administration’s immigration efforts, acknowledging that his predecessor “wreaked havoc” on the border and left an “enormous mess” behind.
Still, Donohoe said immigration experts are “always wary,” and have “no illusions” that a Democratic president guarantees change.
Donohoe said Secretary Mayorkas has signaled the administration may soon be making changes to Title 42 concerning families – a move experts are impatiently awaiting.
“[The Biden administration’s] certainly more of a humanitarian administration than the one previous, ” Donohoe told Insider. “So anything that they undo is moving forward.”
Gaubeca too, said she’s seen signals the administration wants to make changes, but emphasized that processes take time.
“Realistically speaking, there are a lot of steps that the administration knows they have to take, but I think they’re trying to do things in a very measured way, and they’re also trying to build something that was pretty much destroyed by the former administration,” Gaubeca said.