EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Two weeks before the scheduled termination of Title 42, the Biden administration is trying to further reduce the time unaccompanied migrant children spend in federal custody.
These minors are already spending less than a day in U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities and about a month in Department of Health and Human Services custody, federal officials said.
“I believe we are prepared to continue safely serving all unaccompanied children referred to us,” January Contreras, HHS assistant secretary for the Administration of Children and Families, said at a recent Senate committee hearing to gauge the administration’s readiness to prevent bottlenecks when border agents lose their ability on May 23 to swiftly expel migrants, using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Title 42 public health rule.
While many questions are up in the air regarding the administration’s ability to handle a two-fold or even a three-fold increase in the number of unauthorized adult migrants coming across the border after May 23, Contreras said HHS has an excess of beds for unaccompanied minors and can contract out for more.
“We currently have 8,390 children in our care, and we have an overall capacity of 15,500 across our network,” Contreras told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Such contrast stems from unaccompanied migrant children who are not from Mexico having been exempt from Title 42 expulsions since November 2020. Still, HHS is preparing for a potential increase in referrals when the public health order expires. GOP lawmakers, border agents and some migration experts expect across-the-board increases in migration as asylum-seekers are again able to seek protection and transnational criminal organizations encourage others who are not eligible for asylum to come anyway.
“We have developed contingency plans that allow us to build capacity as needed and deploy additional case management support should referrals significantly increase,” Contreras said. “We continue to build capacity for beds for migrant children, adding to existing grants and new grants, authorizing hazard and incentive pay to retain and recruit staff and working closely with CDC on COVID mitigation measures to keep children and staff safe.”
Contreras said the administration has been phasing out Emergency Intake Sites and routing the minors – typically 13 to 17 years old – to Influx Care Facilities run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“Out of the 14 EIS that were utilized last year, only two remain active: Pecos (Texas) EIS and the EIS at Fort Bliss,” Contreras said. “We’re in the process of transitioning both of the remaining Emergency Intake Sites to influx care facilities, which are required to provide the same services and supports as our standard shelters.”
No timetable was discussed for such transition. Border Report reached out to HHS and the office of U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who has stood up for the Fort Bliss EIS when it came under attack by former El Paso contract workers and is awaiting a response.
The soft-sided facility opened last year.