The U.S. Border Patrol is only supposed to detain children entering the country without documentation for up to three days, but the U.S. Health and Human Services Department has nearly run out of space to put unaccompanied children picked up at the border, leaving them in the agency’s custody even longer.
As first reported by The Associated Press on Monday, Health and Human Services is swiftly trying to open facilities across the country to house these children in. One of those will be Dallas’ Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, according to a memo sent to City Council on Monday. Health and Human Services staff did not respond for comment.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Health and Human Services will operate the facility, which will be used to house 15- to 17-year-old boys. Up to 3,000 boys will be at the facility while more permanent sheltering or connection to sponsor families can be arranged. The services provided include access to food, security, cleaning and medical care.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, a Department of Health and Human Services agency, is responsible for caring for children until a relative in the U.S. has been found and vetted.
City Council member Adam Bazaldua said he was excited when he first heard the convention center would be used to house the immigrant teens and glad Dallas had the resources to help. “I think that what we have seen take place for years has been not only extremely inhumane down at the border, but something that has left so many of us feeling helpless,” he said.
“The city of Dallas prides itself on being a welcoming city and inclusive to all. That cannot be a term that is used only when convenient.”
This decision moved through the pipeline fast. On Saturday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas directed FEMA to support the response for unaccompanied children. According to a Department of Homeland Security press release, they are seeing record numbers of people, including unaccompanied children, at the southwest border. They have seen an increase since April last year due to ongoing violence, natural disasters, food insecurity and poverty.
“I am incredibly proud of the agents of the Border Patrol, who have been working around the clock in difficult circumstances to take care of children temporarily in our care," Mayorkas said in a statement. "Yet, as I have said many times, a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child."
Mayorkas said his department wants to get children out of Border Patrol custody and transferred to Health and Human Services as fast as possible.
Around the same time, FEMA and Health and Human Services staff members were visiting the convention center over the weekend on a tour with Dallas’ Office of Emergency Management. Late Sunday, the agencies decided they wanted to use the convention center. They want the facility to be up and running as early as this week.
Besides coordinating the lease of the facility, the city won’t be involved in the operation at all.
Bazaldua said it’s refreshing to have a federal administration using resources and collaborating with governments at all levels to find solutions to problems like these.
Earlier this month, the Biden administration lifted some COVID-19 restrictions at long-term facilities that hold immigrant children to increase capacity. These facilities can now operate at full capacity when some were only operating at 50%. At maximum capacity, there’s about 13,000 available beds. But that’s still not enough space for the some 400 unaccompanied children that Border Patrol agents detain every day.
The Trump administration expelled unaccompanied children under a pandemic public-health declaration. The Biden administration has halted that practice, but adults are still being turned away because of concerns over the coronavirus.
Border authorities said more than 100,000 migrants reached the country's southern frontier with Mexico in February. Under Trump's presidency, border apprehensions plummeted after they hit a peak in May 2019, when more than 132,000 people were encountered on the border. Since April of last year, arrivals have been rising.
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