President Joe Biden campaigned on the promise of offering a more compassionate America for immigrants. But just months into his presidency, his administration faces a situation at the southern border that’s forcing more and more unaccompanied children into what some describe as jail-like conditions.
During a briefing Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declined to call the situation a crisis. CNN reports that more than 100,000 migrants have been encountered at the border in the last four weeks alone — the highest that figure has been in the past five years.
The New York Times and CBS News report that about 3,200 migrant children are currently being held in U.S. custody after crossing the border unaccompanied. More than half of those children have been held longer than three days — the maximum amount of time allowed under the law.
So, how did the Biden administration find itself in such a situation, and does it have a plan moving forward?
Why are more immigrants coming to the U.S.?
It’s impossible to determine every migrant’s reason for choosing to make the dangerous trek to the U.S., but immigration from Central American countries like Nicaragua and Honduras has been on the rise in recent years as many from the region flee poverty and gang violence. Those immigrants travel through the entirety of Mexico and attempt to enter the U.S. at the southern border, many of them claiming asylum.
It’s also possible that many migrants are choosing now to enter America because Biden campaigned on being more compassionate to undocumented immigrants.
Biden's predecessor, former President Donald Trump, sought to deter immigration by separating families at the border, limiting asylum claims, making asylum seekers wait for their hearings in Mexico or another country, and giving Immigration and Customs Enforcement more leeway to deport immigrants already in the country.
With promises to undo some of those policies, immigration to the U.S. may seem more attractive to those seeking to flee their countries.
Last week, Sec. of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas asked migrants to hold off on journeying to the U.S., saying that it would “take time” for the Biden administration to build out its new immigration policies. But Mayorkas’ pleas have done little to slow immigration.
Why is the Biden administration keeping children in custody?
Unlike the Trump administration, Biden is not separating children from their families. However, when unaccompanied minors are encountered at the border, the administration has adopted a policy of keeping them in custody rather than letting them roam Mexico or other Central American countries alone.
When Customs and Border Protection encounters an unaccompanied minor, they bring them back to a Border Patrol station for processing, where they can be held for up to three days. After that, the migrant children are supposed to be transferred to a facility run by the Department of Health and Human Services, which is said to be a more humane environment. From there, the children are then matched with vetted sponsor families in the U.S.
However, under COVID-19 pandemic guidelines, the Health and Human Services resettlement camps are operating under capacity restrictions, cutting the number of beds available to migrants.
The lack of room in the HHS resettlement camps means Customs and Border Protection have been forced to hold children in their Border stations.
Does the Biden administration have a plan?
In the short term, HHS has said it will allow its resettlement facilities to return to pre-pandemic capacity levels, so long as they implement mitigation measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. CBP has also constructed tent complexes in the hopes of moving more children out of the Border stations. The tents offer more accommodations but aren’t suitable long-term solutions.
In addition, Psaki said Tuesday that the administration is “working to implement changes” that would allow the U.S. to safely house more children at the border.
In the long term, the Biden administration has proposed an immigration reform bill that would study the root causes of migration and could potentially offer foreign aid to Central American countries in hopes of stemming it in the future.