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‘It’s Not a Home for Children.’ Thousands of Migrant Children Remain in Shelters at the Border

July 26, 2019, 1:03 PM UTC

The last group of unaccompanied migrant children has left the Carrizo Springs temporary influx shelter this week, said a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.

As of Thursday, all the children have been placed with either a sponsor or transferred to “other state licensed programs,” Evelyn Stauffer, the spokesperson, told Fortune in a statement.

“HHS will retain access to the Carrizo Springs site for temporary influx as HHS considers options regarding its future use,” she added. The Trump administration has already dedicated $50 million for site operations through the end of August.

Hundreds of children are being released to sponsors within the U.S. each week as a result of recent rollbacks of Trump administration policies, Denise Bell, researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International, told Fortune. With less children in detention, incoming unaccompanied migrants can be placed in permanent shelters that provide more individualized care.

As of July 22, there still remains approximately 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children in HHS care, according to a department fact sheet. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which runs these shelters, contracts non-profit organizations to operate its 168 facilities across 23 states.

When there’s an influx of children, however, temporary emergency shelters are created to provide necessary services. These shelters, often comprised of a mix of permanent and tent buildings, are not obligated to provide the same services as a permanent facility.

Tornillo, a Texas-based tent city run by Baptist Child and Family Services (BCFS), was shut down in January 2019 after a federal watchdog revealed “serious safety and health” concerns. Tornillo held up to 2,800 children while in operation.

Carrizo Springs, another emergency shelter venture by BCFS in Texas, has the capacity to hold around 1,300 children. As of last week, however, only roughly 160 children remained in the influx shelter. As of Thursday, all have been transferred to other facilities or placed with a sponsor.

New Policies Have Burdened the System

ORR, which resides within the HHS, is required by law to place any unaccompanied migrant children with an adult sponsor “without unnecessary delay.”

The Trump administration, however, began requiring potential sponsors and all adult members of their household to be fingerprinted last year. Whereas ORR previously operated separately from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an information sharing agreement signed between ORR and the Department of Homeland Security in early 2018 allowed this information to be used for immigration enforcement. The policy created a chilling effect that prevented sponsors from coming forward, as many of these people—relatives or family friends of the child—are themselves undocumented immigrants.

Thus the need for temporary emergency facilities is “entirely a contrived problem,” said Bell. “The only reason there was a back up of children in detention was because of the administration’s policies relating to the information sharing agreement.”

The number of newly opened beds is thanks to a policy change that removed the requirement that all adult members of a sponsor’s household be fingerprinted. Fingerprinting requirements were also lifted for most sponsors in Category 1 (a parent or legal guardian) and Category 2A (a grandparent, sibling, or other close relative who has previously served as the child’s caregiver). Those in Category 2B (a close relative who has not previously served as the child’s caregiver) and Category 3 (distant relatives or family friends) still require fingerprinting.

“Everyone has acknowledged to us on these tours—I’ve been on several now in the past week—that because of the change in administration policies, kids can be released much more quickly to their sponsors and so beds are opening up,” said Bell. “We need [the information sharing policy] rescinded in full immediately.”

The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy has also exasperated the shelter system. Children separated from their family at the border are categorized the same as those who arrive alone. If their parents are then deported, these children can be rendered Category 4. Category 4 children have no identifiable sponsor, and can remain in the shelter system for years.

“I have well over 4,000 of those children in my care at this time,” ORR director Jonathan Hayes, told CBS News in June. Teenagers in Category 4 are at risk of aging out of ORR care; when an unaccompanied migrant child turns 18, they are transferred to an adult detention center operated by ICE.

The Issue of Overcrowding

If Carrizo Springs were to officially close, Homestead, Fla., would be the only remaining site of a temporary emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant children. Reportedly the only facility operated by a private company, Homestead has been in operation under Comprehensive Health Services since March 2018.

An Amnesty International investigation found the nearly 2,000 children there are “held in a restrictive setting, where they are required to follow a highly regimented and strict schedule, wear ID badges with barcodes that are scanned when they enter and leave buildings, and request basic services by filling out request forms.” The human rights organization called the facility “cruel and unlawful” and called for its immediate closure.

Permanent facilities have been criticized for inhuman conditions as well. Lawyers who visited the Clint, Texas shelter in June reported “a stench” resulting from a lack of access to showers. Children there also reportedly had no access to toothbrushes, toothpaste, or soap.

A DHS watchdog report in July warned of “dangerous overcrowding” seen at five border patrol facilities and two ports of entry in the Rio Grande Valley. The inspector general cited data stating that 31% of the more than 2,600 children at these facilities had been held longer than the 72 hours permitted by law. The report covers additional violations of the Flores Agreement, which outlines the conditions in which migrant children can be held by the government.

Stauffer, the ACF spokesperson, told Fortune that the “HHS is mindful of the vulnerability of these children and is committed to providing for the safety and wellbeing of children in our care.”

According to Bell, these issues stem from an insufficient number of permanent shelters and the Trump administration’s policies preventing the reunification of children with their families. While aspects of the information sharing policy have been rolled back, future threats remain.

The 2019 appropriations bill included a provision prohibiting immigration enforcement against sponsor households based on ORR information, but this protection expires at the end of fiscal year 2019. ORR policy states that “until September 30, 2019, DHS is restricted from using a background check subject’s information for immigration enforcement actions.”

For the thousands of children still awaiting a sponsor within the ORR shelter system, Bell said the government should ensure equitable care.

“Children don’t get to choose which facility they’re put into,” she said, “and if they end up at a Homestead, they should receive the same care as if they’re in a permanent shelter.”

Permanent shelters, said Bell, are small. “They feel like group homes. It is individualized care. It’s centered around the child and it’s intended to put them in the best place possible in terms of a new life here.”

Carrizo Springs, now empty, was able to provide individualized care due to its small population. According to Bell, who toured Carrizo Springs last Saturday, permanent shelters require a 12 to 1 ratio of clinicians to children. Last week at Carrizo Springs, the clinicians ratio was down to 3 to 1.

“That’s very, very good care for children to be able to access counseling and social workers,” said Bell. “BCFS believes in providing the same care that children would get in a permanent shelter.”

Children attended school six hours a day from Monday through Friday, with free time built into the day’s structure (BCFS also shared its curriculum with Amnesty International, whereas CHS of Homestead would not). They have space for soccer and arts and crafts. Phones are available for children to call their families.

The facility is a vast change from the BCFS condemned tent city in Tornillo. According to Bell, BCFS “learned from that mistake, but without the public pressure and congressional oversight, we wouldn’t be here.”

Even with a small population, the space in Carrizo Springs is “not a home for children,” said Bell. ORR successfully followed through on its promise to unify children with their sponsor as quickly as possible—even instructing BCFS staff to work 12 hour days, said Bell—but for nearly a month before then, children were living in “repurposed containers.”

The shelter is a remodeled oilfield worker camp in rural Texas, outside of San Antonio. Children lived in suites of 12, with four beds in three rooms. That’s 12 children to a single bathroom. Additional showers and toilets are available outside, but that required children to cross dusty ground in over 100 degree heat.

While Carrizo Springs now stands empty, thousands of unaccompanied migrant children remain in other government-funded shelters, including Homestead.

“It’s detention and they don’t belong here,” said Bell. “They should be with their families.”