Biden administration preparing another tent facility to cope with border influx
WASHINGTON - U.S. border officials are preparing to open another tent facility in South Texas to cope with soaring numbers of migrant families and children crossing into the United States in recent weeks, according to three Homeland Security officials involved in the planning.
The temporary facility is expected to open in the coming weeks in U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Del Rio sector, and will be similar to another "soft-sided" structure the agency opened in Donna, Tex., three weeks ago. That site and other Border Patrol facilities are under increasing capacity strain from the burgeoning influx of Central American minors and family groups in U.S. custody.
Officials are also looking at the possibility of opening additional sites in Arizona, but those plans are less advanced, according to one official.
The Del Rio sector tent facility, which will be located near the town of Eagle Pass, is distinct from another temporary shelter the Biden administration opened this week in Carrizo Springs, Tex., where Health and Human Services is holding migrant teens who crossed the border without a parent.
President Biden has used executive authority to reverse several Trump administration border policies, but he is facing a looming crisis as more and more minors and family groups enter without authorization. The number of minors arriving without a parent has grown to more than 300 each day in recent weeks, a fourfold increase since last fall.
Late Thursday night, 130 adults and teens arrived in a group near Mission, Tex., according to Brian Hastings, the Border Patrol sector chief in Rio Grande Valley. "In less than a 24 hour period, this area alone saw more than 500 illegal entries," Hastings said in a tweet.
The Trump administration used a pandemic-related public health order to rapidly send border-crossers back to Mexico, but the policy was denounced by immigrant rights groups for sending vulnerable minors to dangerous border cities. Biden ordered CBP to stop "expelling" minors, and since then the number of teens and children arriving without parents has ballooned.
U.S. law requires CBP to deliver unaccompanied minors to HHS within 72 hours, but the volume of new arrivals has led to backups, and Homeland Security officials are scrambling to find more shelter space. Pandemic distancing protocols have reduced capacity by about 40 percent in the HHS shelter network.
HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement oversees the shelters and works to vet sponsors who can assume custody of the minor - typically a parent already living in the United States or other relative. After migrant advocacy groups criticized the Biden administration this week for opening influx facilities, HHS said it would begin paying for airfare to deliver minors to family members and sponsors who cannot afford the travel costs.
"What is happening now is there are children fleeing [persecution], fleeing threats in their own countries, traveling on their own, unaccompanied, to the border," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday. "And our focus is on approaching this from the view of humanity and from - and with safety in mind."
Biden officials have faced daily questions from reporters and criticism from other Democrats who say the government should not be holding the migrant children, and allowing them to reunite with relatives as quickly as possible.
HHS and other agencies that care for the minors say they need to screen sponsors carefully, a task made more challenging when these adults lack legal status, a permanent address and other records. In 2014, teens were released to traffickers who put them to work on an egg farm in Ohio, an incident that outraged lawmakers and led to a more thorough vetting process.
"Each day brings new reports of a surge of arrivals at the U.S. southern border, which we know will increase the risk of trafficking in persons, especially for unaccompanied children arriving in greater numbers," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the ranking GOP member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, in a statement.
"I urge the Biden administration to ensure that these children do not fall victim to human trafficking, abuse, or other harm and that the agencies of jurisdiction improve their operations and meet their responsibilities under the law," Portman said.
Family groups pose a different challenge to the administration. The Biden administration has continued to use the Trump-era pandemic order, known as Title 42, to quickly return them to Mexico. But last month, Mexican authorities stopped taking back some family groups in the Rio Grande Valley and other sectors, citing capacity limits in its shelter system.
The Biden administration started releasing those families into the U.S. interior in late January, typically after giving them a notice to appear in court and affixing some sort of GPS monitoring device to track their whereabouts.
Democratic officials in South Texas, a region devastated by the pandemic, have urged the Biden administration to stop the releases. Earlier this month, Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano implored Biden to halt the practice in a video uploaded to YouTube.
"I am pleading and requesting with you to put a halt to any measures regarding the release of immigrants awaiting court dates into the city of Del Rio and surrounding areas," Lozano said.
Internal communications among DHS officials show agency leaders scrambling to avert a humanitarian crisis.
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has asked U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help process families and transport them further north, away from the border towns and cities where local officials are upset with Biden, according to a Feb. 12 internal email obtained by The Washington Post.
Critics of the Biden administration, including some Democrats, have compared the tent facilities to the chain link enclosures denounced as "cages" during the Trump administration's Zero Tolerance 2018 crackdown, when thousands of minors were separated from their parents by the government.
The McAllen, Tex., warehouse that is the Border Patrol's largest facility for families and children is closed for a major renovation that includes the removal of the chain link fencing used to separate teens by gender and age. The chain link will be replaced with more humane-looking dividers, CBP officials say.