President Joe Biden has directed personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the U.S.-Mexico border to deal with a mounting influx of unaccompanied migrant teens and children.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas described the plan as a “government-wide effort over the next 90 days to safely receive, shelter, and transfer unaccompanied children who make the dangerous journey to the U.S. southwest border.”
The agency will assist with alleviating overcrowding in detention facilities along the border, likely erecting temporary, so-called “soft-sided structures,” he said.
Mayorkas said the agency is fielding “record numbers of individuals, including unaccompanied children, at the southwest border.” Currently, 4,000 minors are in DHS custody, and another 8,500 are in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. Detention centers in southwest Texas and tent cities in Mexican border cities are filling up.
In total, DHS agents arrested or detained more than 100,000 people in February 2021 and the agency is on track to take in even more this month. Customs and Border Patrol said it is “struggling” after taking more children into custody in February 2021 than any other month in nearly two years.
Mayorkas said his agency is working with HHS because “a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child,” adding, “Our goal is to ensure that unaccompanied children are transferred to HHS as quickly as possible.”
Facilities dedicated to sheltering children have reached capacity and continued filling in recent weeks, with one in Donna, Texas, hitting an eye-popping 729 percent of its capacity in early March. Many children there had remained long past the legal limit for detention of minors, 72 hours.
The directive for FEMA to get involved comes a week after several Biden administration officials visited the border to see the situation for themselves, with the White House saying they discussed “capacity needs” and “ways to ensure the fair and humane treatment of immigrants” during a visit to Border Patrol and refugee resettlement facilities.
Many of former President Donald Trump’s Republican surrogates have seized on the immigration surge to accuse Biden of failing to contain an influx of migrants spurred by an overly lenient approach. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), an ally of Trump, claimed during the Biden delegation’s visit to the border last week that the border was “breaking down,” predicting that immigration “in 2022 will be a bigger issue that it was in 2016.”
And former Trump adviser Stephen Miller, the driving force behind the Trump administration’s devastating family-separation policy, seized on the situation recently to accuse Biden of “inhumane” immigration policies.
The Trump administration had issued an emergency public health order in March 2020 allowing border officials to turn away children and force them to remain in Mexico as well as expelling those already the U.S. before they could request asylum. A Washington, D.C. federal judge ruled the approach unconstitutional in November.
Former President Barack Obama gave a similar directive to FEMA in 2014, when then-record numbers of children were crossing the border as well. The agency erected temporary shelters for the migrants and processing centers on military bases.