What happened to the ‘border crisis’: Unaccompanied children are being released faster and detained less often

Unaccompanied immigrant minors US-Mexico border
Unaccompanied immigrant minors wait to be processed by Border Patrol agents after they crossed the Rio Grande into south Texas on April 29, 2021 in Roma, Texas.

  • On Tuesday, 281 children were apprehended at the border, nearly half the numbers seen in March.
  • Fewer than 500 kids are being held by US Customs and Border Protection, down from a high of 5,700.
  • “The Biden administration has successfully solved the issue of children in Border Patrol custody,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council.
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It was the first big political crisis of the Biden administration: unaccompanied children, fleeing poverty and violence in Central America, crossing the border and seeking asylum. The numbers weren’t far from what was seen the previous year, under President Donald Trump, but the surge was real – as was the inability of the federal government to process and shelter those coming in a timely, humane manner.

The political opposition saw an easy opportunity to score some points. Congressional delegations toured the Rio Grande, in flak jackets, eager to be seen investigating “the crisis at the border.” Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, told Fox News viewers it was in fact “the Biden crisis,” pointing to the new president’s policies on immigration for an increase in asylum-seekers that actually began last December, before he took office.

Two months later, most Republicans have moved on to other issues, like taxes and “cancel culture.” As of this week, fewer than 500 children are being held by US Customs and Border Protection at any given time, down from more than 5,700 in March. Instead of days in facilities that are objectively unfit for children, most are being transferred out in less than 24 hours.

“The Biden administration has successfully solved the issue of children in Border Patrol custody,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the nonpartisan American Immigration Council, told Insider. “But they’ve done that through these emergency influx shelters, which are not that much better, necessarily.”

The shelters that would normally hold children seeking asylum, at least until they could be placed with a guardian or sponsor, were already at two-thirds capacity in December 2020. It wasn’t until January 15, five days before Biden’s inauguration, that the Trump administration began looking for more space.

But that cannot be done overnight. It’s not just a physical space that is required, but people to staff them. And so it took until March for the Biden administration to announce it had successfully converted places like the convention center in Long Beach, California, into a temporary home for unaccompanied minors.

More than 20,600 children are now in the custody of the Health and Human Services Department, specifically its Office of Refugee Resettlement. This shift is welcomed by advocates; a convention center floor might be better than a Border Patrol jail, but no one would suggest it is ideal.

Now, though, the Biden administration is getting kids out of there faster too. In March, fewer than 300 children a day were being discharged into the custody of sponsors; in May, 775 children were released on a single day, a new record. And for nearly two weeks now, the number of children being released each day has exceeded the number who are freshly detained.

On Tuesday, for example, 281 children were apprehended and placed into CBP custody, according to data released by HHS and the Department of Homeland Security. More than twice as many – 559 – were discharged by HHS.

More than 80% of those children have a family member already living in the United States, with some 40% released into the custody of someone who is either a parent or a legal guardian, according to government figures. Over half will ultimately win their asylum cases, far more than the average.

Many also arrive at the border with someone related to them, Reichlin-Melnick noted: a grandparent, aunt, or uncle who is then taken from them. That is, they are not really “unaccompanied” at all. Here, he argues, there is a further opportunity to reduce the strain on HHS, and spare many of these children from having to spend weeks, without someone they know, in any form of state custody.

“That is a form of family separation that has been occurring for years and started before the Trump administration’s family separation policy,” he said, “and is continuing today.”

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