Backlog of migrant children in Border Patrol custody soars to 4,200, with 3,000 held past legal limit

As of Sunday morning, U.S. Border Patrol was holding more than 4,200 unaccompanied migrant children in short-term holding facilities, including jail-like stations unfit to house minors, according to government records reviewed by CBS News.

Nearly 3,000 of the unaccompanied children in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody had been held longer than 72 hours. CBP is legally obligated to transfer most unaccompanied minors to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the agency which oversees shelters licensed to house children, within three days of taking them into custody.

The number of unaccompanied children in CBP custody on Sunday represents a 31% increase from early last week, when the agency was holding more than 3,200 minors. The number of children held longer than three days more than doubled. 

According to the government records reviewed by CBS News, an average of 565 unaccompanied minors entered CBP custody each day during the past week.

The records show that unaccompanied minors are spending an average of 117 hours in a Border Patrol facility, which Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has said “is no place for a child.”

Collectively, the statistics highlight the humanitarian crisis emerging at the U.S.-Mexico border resulting from a sustained increase in the number unaccompanied children being taken into custody and a lack of sufficient shelter space to house them.

In February, nearly 9,500 unaccompanied children entered U.S. border custody, with more than 7,000 transferred to ORR, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Arrivals of Central American teenagers and children have only increased in March. 

With thousands of children held in short-term Border Patrol facilities, most of which were built to detain migrant men, detention conditions have become overcrowded, according to lawyers who interviewed minors in U.S. custody.

Children interviewed on Thursday by lawyers conducting oversight as part of a federal court case reported sleeping on the floor; being hungry; only showering once in as many as seven days; and not being able to call family members.

“One of them shared that he could only see the sun when he showered, because you can see the sun through the window,” Neha Desai, a lawyer at the National Center for Youth Law, told CBS News, citing interviews with nearly a dozen children, including an unaccompanied 8-year-old girl.

According to government data, CBP sectors in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso, Texas — as well as Yuma and Tucson, Arizona — are all over capacity when it comes to their space to house unaccompanied children. With more than 2,500 unaccompanied minors in custody, the Rio Grande Valley sector is currently at 363% capacity.

Representatives for CBP and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not respond to requests for comment. 

DHS has admitted several times that it is struggling to process the large numbers of migrant families and children entering the department’s custody.

“We are working in partnership with HHS to address the needs of unaccompanied children, which is made only more difficult given the protocols and restrictions required to protect the public health and the health of the children themselves,” Mayorkas said Saturday in a statement announcing the deployment of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials to help process migrant minors.

With approximately 9,000 children in custody and its beds reduced by social distancing measures, the refugee office has been scrambling to find space for unaccompanied migrant children. The agency is considering housing children at a military installation in Virginia, as well as a federal airfield in California overseen by NASA.

The refugee agency has been releasing hundreds of migrant children to family members and other sponsors every week, but its discharge rate has been eclipsed by the number of minors entering U.S. border custody.

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) allowed the refugee agency to relax social distancing policies and return to pre-pandemic bed space, only 200 additional beds have been made available, Biden administration officials said Friday.

HHS has also placed staff at Border Patrol facilities to expedite the process of releasing minors and rescinded a Trump-era agreement with DHS that allowed some information on sponsors of children to be sent to immigration authorities — a move designed to encourage undocumented families to sponsor children.

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