Politics: Migrant children at military bases: What is Biden doing?

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President Joe Biden has been housing unaccompanied alien children from the Southern border at temporary facilities at military bases, and reports from child advocates and people who've worked at the facilities are harrowing.

a group of people standing on a beach: Migrant children at military bases: What is Biden doing? © Getty Images Migrant children at military bases: What is Biden doing?

Why are we housing migrant children at military bases, and why are we apparently treating them so poorly?

What does it portend for treatment of migrant children under the Biden administration?

Background

A surge in the appearance of unaccompanied alien children at the southern border has overwhelmed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), making it very difficult to provide proper care for the children.

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The number of unaccompanied alien children apprehended at the border nearly doubled from 4,852 in December 2020 (the last full month of the Trump administration) to 9,266 in February 2021 (the first full month in the Biden administration). It rose again to 18,723 in March, was 16,908 in April, 13,892 in May, and 15,018 in June.

Two statutes and a legal settlement agreement require CBP to transfer unaccompanied alien children to ORR within 72 hours of their apprehension. This does not apply to children from contiguous countries. ORR is responsible for the children's care until they can be placed with sponsors, usually family members, who will maintain custody over them while they wait for an immigration hearing.

ORR has licensed detention centers for unaccompanied alien children with a total of more than 13,500 beds, but the adjusted space requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic limited the number of children it can place at its licensed detention facilities.

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And the demand for bed space has gone up. As of July 15, there were approximately 14,920 unaccompanied alien children in ORR custody. At the end of May, the system-wide average length of time these children were spending in ORR's shelters was 35 days.

Consequently, ORR had to set up emergency housing facilities. This has included military bases in Texas - Joint Base San Antonio in Lackland and Fort Bliss in El Paso.


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Previous presidents also have had to resort to using military bases for detaining unaccompanied alien children; in fact, the Obama/Biden administration did it. According to the Congressional Research Service, nearly 16,000 unaccompanied alien children were housed at military bases between 2012 and 2017, because existing shelters were overwhelmed by the number of children being apprehended at the border.

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This time, however, Biden is the one who is responsible for ensuring that the children will receive proper care, and he doesn't seem to be able to meet that responsibility.

Biden's use of military bases

Biden set up a tent city at Fort Bliss in March. It has held as many as 4,500 boys and girls ages 13 to 17 in large tents, but it only had 790 children in July, all boys. It is capable of holding up to 10,000 children, which makes it the largest detention facility the U.S. government has ever set up for housing migrant children.

Unlike regular ORR detention facilities, Fort Bliss and the other emergency centers do not have to have state licenses to certify that they can care for children.

Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), child advocates, and contract workers have claimed that the Fort Bliss facility is poorly managed and that children in it are suffering. They say children wait for weeks without speaking to a caseworker who could connect them with a sponsor; that COVID-19, other infectious diseases, and lice are rampant; and that some contract caregivers lack adequate training to work with young children.

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The level of stress among the children has been so high that the government has had to monitor them for incidents of self-harm, panic attacks, and escape attempts. Pencils, pens, scissors, nail clippers, and regular toothbrushes have been kept out of the tents to prevent the children from using them to hurt themselves.

In a letter dated July 15, 2021, Earthjustice, the Hispanic Federation, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, Green Latinos, and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement call for the immediate closure of the Fort Bliss detention center. Among other things, they claim that Fort Bliss is unsafe because the Army has failed to take the necessary steps to ensure that it will be free of toxic waste hazards. At least 80 contaminated sites have been identified at Fort Bliss.

What's more, two contractors who worked at Fort Bliss from May 12, 2021, to June 2, 2021, filed a whistleblower complaint in July. They say that the tents are massive; each one has between 1,000 and 1,500 beds. Moreover, they are dirty and often smell like a locker room, and the presence of numerous portable toilets produces a sewage odor.

Although many children are housed in these tents for as long as two months, it appears - according to the whistleblowers' complaint - that their bedding is never washed. The children apparently also do not have enough clean underwear and socks, which makes them reluctant to exercise or to bathe because they lack clean clothes to change into afterwards.

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Biden also set up a much smaller detention facility in a vacant dormitory at Joint Base San Antonio - Lackland, Texas. It had a capacity of only 372 beds for boys aged 13 to 17. Approximately 100 boys were put there on April, 17, 2021. It was closed on June 30.

The way migrant children have been treated at Fort Bliss makes me wonder how they are being treated at the rest of the detention facilities, especially the emergency centers that do not have to have state licenses.

But I am more worried about what happens to them when they leave the ORR detention facilities to stay with sponsors. How can Biden ensure that the sponsors will treat them properly when he can't ensure proper treatment while they are still in government custody?

Nolan Rappaport was detailed to the House Judiciary Committee as an executive branch immigration law expert for three years. He subsequently served as an immigration counsel for the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims for four years. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals for 20 years. Follow his blog at https://nolanrappaport.blogspot.com.

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