Dulce Martinez
Asst. News Editor

The Biden Administration reopened a Trump-era child migrant center on Feb. 22 in Carrizo Springs, Texas. This follows President Biden signing three executive orders on Feb. 2, claiming these decisions will “lead a more fair, orderly, humane” immigration system. 

The Carrizo Springs Center originally opened in the summer of 2019 for a month as an emergency facility, which caused an uproar from immigrant advocates, as they felt that this was an inhumane way to handle the influx of child migrants entering the country. The 66-acre site is now being planned to hold up to 700 migrant children and is said to close when the pandemic ends. The opening of this shelter comes after an increase in the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. In January, Customs and Border Protection reported having apprehended 5,800 children, and this number is said to increase in the future. 

Whittier College’s own Visiting Professor of Social Work, Tina Yates, is a pro-bono immigration lawyer who represents unaccompanied minors through the Kids In Need of Defense Program. Yates feels that the opening of the detention centers is a better solution as of right now. “I do not see how President Biden has a choice at this point. There is a massive influx of unaccompanied minors coming into the U.S. right now. In January 2021 alone, there were 5,700 minors apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, and, in the first four days of March 1 – 4, 2021, 1,500 unaccompanied minors entered the U.S.,” said Yates. “I feel children need more protection, and the facilities that President Biden reopened are more geared towards protecting children, and it is the best option right now.” 

The Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for the care of unaccompanied minors until they can be placed with a sponsor. According to HHS, “when a child [ . . . ] has entered the country illegally and is not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian, he or she is considered an unaccompanied child, and, by law, must be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement for care and custody.” It is important to note that HHS is responsible for children deemed unaccompanied minors and those who have been separated from their parents or legal guardians. HHS reported that, as of Feb. 28, 2021, there are approximately 7,700 Unaccompanied Children in HHS.

As a result of the rising number of unaccompanied minors, the Biden Administration decided to open up their child migrant facilities in order to fit all the children in HHS care. In a memo issued by The Department of Health and Safety, it was stated that service providers could, “temporarily increase capacity to full licensed capacity . . . while implementing and adhering to strict COVID-19 mitigation measures.”

Photo courtesy of Sergio Flores/ The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Professor Yates supports Biden’s decision to reopen migration centers and believes that holding children in the HHS facilities would provide inadequate care for children. “The detention centers, such as the reopened Carrizo Springs, Texas one, are necessary, and the children are better off in those centers than in the custody of U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) facilities, which resemble jails and are more appropriate for adults than minors,” said Professor Yates. “The Carrizo Springs, Texas facility is run by the Office of Refugee & Resettlement division of the Department of Health and Human Services and is more child welfare-centric than the CBP law enforcement facilities.”

However, there are those who disagree with the Biden administration’s decision to open migrant centers and feel that they are moving backward instead of invoking change. “The opening of child migrant centers is not okay. They weren’t okay then, and they’re not okay now. I think that the reopening of children migrant centers is not only a mistake, but also a huge step backward for the Biden administration,” said third-year Janett Torres. “I think the bare minimum that the Biden administration can do is make sure that the children in these centers have access to the resources and necessities that they need. That includes lawyers, therapists, proper medical assistance, and translators, as well as actual beds, blankets, and nutritious meals.” 

By allowing children to be placed in the Child Migrant centers, the Biden administration is cutting down the time that the child is in Border Patrol Custody. This decision can be seen as a way of keeping children out of facilities that have been argued to resemble jails and provide unfit care for children. In the past year, CBP facilities have been criticized for a number of reasons, ranging from not having adequate medical care, which has cost lives, to not giving detainees food or beds to sleep in.  Legally, a child is only allowed to be held for up to 72 hours, but, because of the increase of migrants, this hold time averaged 77 hours.

In the DHS memo, it was said that “additional shelter capacity will minimize the likelihood that children remain in Border Patrol stations longer than necessary, where they are also exposed to COVID-19 transmission risks as well as child welfare concerns associated with such settings. Overcapacity at Border Stations poses a greater infection risk to children than [Office of Refugee Resettlement] program sites that may operate at full licensed capacity with comprehensive COVID-19 mitigation measures in place.”

Public concern is that the children held in these centers will not be given adequate resources in regards to COVID-19. There have been studies that show that children are capable of spreading COVID-19, and, many times, children do not present symptoms. According to a report issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there have been 9,686 cumulative cases as of March 6, 2021. Even though this child migrant center is not being run by ICE, but the Office of Refugee and Resettlement instead — a division under HHS — the concerns still stand.

“I definitely have concerns about COVID-19 within these centers,” said Torres. “One of my biggest concerns is: are children in the migrant centers getting COVID tested daily? If a child in the migrant center tests positive for COVID-19, are they given proper medical attention as well as proper medicine? I think my biggest fear is that the children in these centers aren’t getting that, especially at the child migrant centers that are located in red states.” 

The CDC issued with a memo that states that “there is no [zero percent] risks scenario,” and that facilities should expect to see COVID-19 cases. While this can be seen as the administration willingly putting children in a situation where they can get sick, it has also been said that these migrant centers are better than being in Customs and Border Protection facilities. According to Forbes, “the CDC said it recommended the shelters enforce precautions to reduce the risk of outbreaks, such as testing, masking, isolation, and “quarantine space” for individuals with the coronavirus. Although these measures will not completely eliminate risk given the nature of COVID-19, particularly in congregate settings, CDC believes the risk of an outbreak at an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility that has instituted stricter mitigation measures and is operating at full capacity is lower than that at a densely packed CBP facility with little to no mitigation measures,” said the CDC.

Ultimately, shorter stays in the detention center and having the minors placed with U.S. sponsors is the gold standard, but it is not that easy. Again, there needs more officers and funding for a more robust system,” said Yates. 

Granted, what everyone wants to see is that these children get put with sponsors and get out of the immigration system in a timely manner, but the system is one that cannot change overnight. It can also be said that, without a definite solution, these centers are one of the only measures the administration can make given the nature of the country right now.

With limited information on migrant centers, the public is left wondering as to the conditions inside these centers that are not licensed to care for children. The number of unaccompanied minors continues to increase, leaving the Biden administration trying to come up with ways in which they can safely place these children in centers where they will be taken care of. It seems as though this will be only the first of more reopened child migrant centers.

 

Featured image courtesy of Anjali Nair/ MSNBC; Getty Images

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