Rise in unaccompanied migrant children began in November, spans administrations, experts say

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An employee with the Department of Homeland Security checks the scalp of a migrant youth for lice on March 17, 2021, at the processing detention tent facility in Donna, Texas. The facility is overcrowded with thousands of youth who are being shipped to other cities in Texas and the nation. (Courtesy Photo)

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with data on unaccompanied children currently in federal care as of Wednesday night.)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — When President Joe Biden took office, there already was a stream of unaccompanied migrant youth being admitted into the United States claiming asylum. That stream started in November when a federal court ruled the children could not be kept out by the Trump administration, which had been using a Title 42 travel ban — implemented in March 2020 to stop the spread of coronavirus — as the excuse.

About 13,000 unaccompanied minors had been deported under the Trump administration in 2020 prior to the judge’s order. And under President Donald Trump, beds for unaccompanied minors were reduced nationwide.

So as officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in November began letting them cross into ports of entry to claim asylum, and Border Patrol officers in the field were told the youth could not be expelled for entering illegally, the facilities that were left for housing these minors — which are operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement — quickly began filling up.

And by the time Biden took office on Jan. 21, there was widespread knowledge in Central America that these youth would not be turned away and many began heading north, which resulted in overcrowding and conditions currently being experienced in South Texas.

Migrants, including many youth, are seen in this photo taken last weekend inside a detention processing facility run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Donna, Texas. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s office.)

In February, 9,457 unaccompanied minors crossed the Southwest border, Acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller announced earlier this month. The majority are crossing into the Rio Grande Valley near the South Texas towns of McAllen and Mission.

Late Wednesday, officials with HHS and the Department of Homeland Security released updated data showing that 621 children from countries other than Mexico were apprehended on Wednesday and placed into CBP custody. Altogether, 4962 children were in CBP custody and 11,551 children were in the custody of HHS.

Thousands have been packed into a migrant processing center in rural Donna, Texas, where CBP officers are working shoulder to shoulder with Border Patrol agents and employees with HHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help sort and process the migrant youth and find beds and sponsors and locations for them to go.

Some youth are being shipped to a Dallas convention center, and other cities like Midland, Texas, by DHS and HHS officials as they try to get a handle on the rising situation. Eventually, the young migrants will be housed at the San Diego Convention Center.

This photo provided by DHS officials on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, show youth at the Donna processing tent facility in Donna, Texas. (Courtesy Photo)

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, on Tuesday sent President Biden a letter complaining about the surge and said over 11,000 minors have been apprehended crossing the border into Texas so far this year. Abbott wrote that it is an “escalating humanitarian crisis at the border, including the threat of human traffickers who prey on, exploit, and abuse unaccompanied minors.”

Several Republican lawmakers, have called on the Biden administration to address the surge of migrant youth.

U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Republicans from Texas, are leading a delegation of lawmakers on Friday to the Rio Grande. They are slated to hold a roundtable with local officials and meet with Border Patrol leaders.

“As part of our oversight duties as Senators, I and 14 of my colleagues will travel to the border this week to talk to the brave men and women on the ground who are working every today to stop this crisis and secure our border,” Cruz wrote in a letter Monday he sent to Biden.

Gov. Greg Abbott addresses media on March 9, 2021, at Anzalduas Park in Mission, Texas, after touring the Rio Grande Valley. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

On Thursday, Abbott also is returning to McAllen. He is scheduled to discuss the Save Our Seniors vaccination program, but undoubtedly he will gather information on the border surge. This will be his second trip in just two weeks.

He visited Mission, Texas, on March 9 and toured the region via helicopter. Afterward, he held a news conference and laid the blame for the migrant surge on Biden, saying, “the crisis is a result of President Biden’s open-border policies, which invites illegal immigrants and creates a humanitarian crisis that will grow increasingly worse by the day.”

A young migrant girl from Honduras is seen on Feb. 2, 2021, at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

But migrant advocates and immigration lawyers say all of this rhetoric spewing from lawmakers is muddying what is really happening on the border and detracts from the fact that the border was open to unaccompanied migrant children during Trump’s last months in office.

“In November 2020, a decision by a federal judge said you can’t do that. Title 42 cannot be applied. You must take them into custody and put them into the ORR system. Then Trump’s deportation of unaccompanied minors stopped,” Charlene D’Cruz, a lawyer with the nonprofit organization Lawyers for Good Government, told Border Report on Wednesday.

“So this movement has not occurred because of Biden or post-Biden. This has been occurring,” said D’Cruz, who has been based in Brownsville, Texas, since the summer of July 2019 and has worked on 2,500 asylum application cases of migrants trying to cross from the northern Mexican cities of Matamoros and Reynosa. “So this ‘rush crisis’ or politically charged-terminology did not occur in the last couple months. It has been happening all through.”

This ‘rush crisis’ or politically charged-terminology did not occur in the last couple months. It has been happening all through.”

Immigration lawyer Charlene D’Cruz

D’Cruz said understanding complex immigration law and policies is hard enough, but she said there is so much added “noise” right now from lawmakers who are passing around what she calls a “political potato.”

Immigration lawyer Charlene D’Cruz works for Project Corazon launched by the nonprofit Lawyers for Good Government. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“The border has been the place where politicians seem to want to rise or fall. It’s a battleground whenever peoople want to make a point. Then they forget to come and help when there’s no political limelight,” she said.

“What’s Not Being Said About the Border,” a report released Tuesday by Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy council for the American Immigration Council, cites that “the current increase began well before President Biden took office and mirrors similar trends from 2014 and 2019.”

It also says that during the COVID pandemic when Title 42 restrictions were applied to unaccompanied minors, 13,000 children were deported by U.S. officials back to their home countries and prevented from applying for asylum at the Southwest border.

“Both the Obama and Trump administrations used harmful deterrence-based policies to try to prevent people from coming to the United States. Obama detained families and Trump separated families and sent them into dangerous conditions in Mexico under the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program,” another report released this week by the American Immigration Council says.

“Neither policy worked in the long-term. They temporarily suppressed arrivals, but the push factors in home countries and drivers of migration remain. Within a few years of each punitive policy’s implementation, there was another increase in people coming to the border. What is happening now under Biden is neither unique nor unprecedented,” the report said.

What is happening now under Biden is neither unique nor unprecedented.”

American Immigration Council Report

The Biden administration has repeatedly said the border is not open and is discouraging anyone from making the journey north.

“The situation at the southwest border is difficult. We are working around the clock to manage it and we will continue to do so. That is our job. We are making progress and we are executing on our plan. It will take time and we will not waver in our commitment to succeed. We will also not waver in our values and our principles as a Nation. Our goal is a safe, legal, and orderly immigration system that is based on our bedrock priorities: to keep our borders secure, address the plight of children as the law requires, and enable families to be together,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said earlier this month.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat who represents South Texas, on Wednesday suggested turning back some of the older unaccompanied teens to make room for the more vulnerable younger children.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, announced earlier this week he would not run for reelection. (Courtesy Photo)

“There is no perfect fix here. The administration is doing the right thing because the law requires that we process unaccompanied minors. However, we are in the middle of a pandemic and our systems are being overwhelmed. At some point, it is important to take a practical approach. Thirteen percent of the UACs are under the age of 12. One logical approach to this situation would be to return the older teenagers to their home country and provide funding for an effort supervised by the United Nations to properly care for those teenagers upon their return. Then, once the pandemic is under control you could phase the program back in so that there would be some semblance of control over the process. I think that this would help relieve the current burden,” Vela said.

On Wednesday, a delegation of White House officials and members of Congress toured the Carrizo Springs Children’s Detention Center, where thousands of unaccompanied migrants are being held about a 90-minute drive southwest of San Antonio. Afterward, Sarah Valdes, director of Released Children’s Services for the advocacy group RAICES issued this statement:

“It’s shocking that as a country we are still putting kids in these places after years of seeing them open and close over and over again. We at RAICES know who these children are and where they come from. We know their stories and we won’t stop until we as a country see them for who they are; human beings seeking a better life for themselves and their families,” Valdes said.

“The biggest threat to any of these children’s safety is that they will be deported by the U.S. government back to the most dangerous places. That’s what DHS and DOJ are at work trying to do. No matter how nice the HHS/ORR facilities are, as long as DHS/DOJ is allowed to charge the children in their care for deportation they are not safe places for children,” she said.

Reichlin-Melnick’s report highlights that the number of unaccompanied migrant children crossing on the Southwest border still make up just a small percentage of those apprehended. In February, 71% of all border apprehensions were of single adults, not families or unaccompanied children. And in February 72% of migrants apprehended were sent back to Mexico.

D’Cruz said the bottomline is that asylum is a right codified by the Refugee Act of 1980. And she said the teens and families coming across the Southwest border are doing so because they are “fleeing for their lives.”

“This is not a way that asylum law should operate. Asylum law is a right. There is a definite basic human right to migration and a definite right to asylum and we need to restore the rule of law. And I know the Biden administration is working toward it but you can’t tell people to stay home and come on a sunnier day. It’s not realistic,” D’Cruz said. “These are people who are fleeing many situations. … This is why they have chosen to come. They’re not coming for Disneyland.”

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