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Explainer: Why more migrant children are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border

The number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border this year is on pace to be the highest in 20 years, one of U.S. President Joe Biden’s top officials said this week, a rise that includes an increase in unaccompanied children.

The Biden administration has struggled to house the growing number of children arriving without a parent or legal guardian, which has left the kids stuck in jail-like border facilities for days. Republicans have blamed Biden for relaxing immigration policies, while some Democrats are concerned about conditions in facilities and why children are being held for so long.

Biden, a Democrat who took office on Jan. 20, pledged to reverse many of the hard-line border policies of his Republican predecessor, former President Donald Trump. But less than two months into his presidency, he is dealing with an emerging humanitarian and political crisis.

WHO ARE THE UNACCOMPANIED CHILDREN ARRIVING AT THE BORDER?

About two-thirds of unaccompanied children caught at the border since Oct. 1, 2020, have been from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Mexican children make up most of the remainder.

As of Tuesday, about 9,200 unaccompanied children were in the custody of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) refugee office that manages a government shelter system for the kids – the highest number since 2019.

Most of the kids in custody are teenagers, but hundreds are under 12 years old. The majority of unaccompanied children apprehended since Oct. 1, 2020, crossed through Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, according to CBP.

WHY ARE SO MANY KIDS COMING TO THE BORDER?

Many unaccompanied children come to the United States to reunite with family members or escape violence and poverty in their home countries, according to immigration experts.

Central America has recently been battered by hurricanes and slumping economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has spurred more migration.

Republicans argue Biden has encouraged illegal immigration by rolling back Trump’s policies. But border arrests have been gradually rising since a sharp decline in April 2020 as countries shut borders due to the pandemic.

Biden told ABC in an interview on Tuesday that it was nonsense that more migrants were coming because he is “a nice guy,” saying “they come because their circumstance is so bad.”

Biden officials and migrant advocates, however, acknowledge that the current increase is at least partly due to a recent policy change that now allows unaccompanied children into the country.

The Biden administration continues to expel single adults and families crossing illegally, with some exceptions.

There were similar spikes in 2019 and 2014 under Trump and former President Barack Obama, respectively.

ARE THE CHILDREN TRULY UNACCOMPANIED?

Some children do make the potentially dangerous trip to the border alone or with a smuggler, according to immigration experts. But in other cases, children travel with older siblings, grandparents, or other relatives, and can be split apart by CBP after being caught at the border.

Currently, immigrant advocates are concerned that parents may be traveling to the border with their children and sending them to the United States alone so that they will be permitted to enter.

If the parents and children entered as a family, they could be expelled under Title 42, a Trump-era health order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A CHILD ARRIVES AT THE BORDER?

Children are supposed to be transferred out of CBP custody to HHS-run shelters within 72 hours.

But when shelter space is limited, children can get stuck in border detention centers for longer periods – as is happening now.

The border stations were built to house adult men for short periods and could pose a COVID-19 health risk to children and staff if they are overcrowded.

Once in the shelters, children can be released to parents or other sponsors, or placed in foster care. They can then pursue asylum cases, seek other ways to remain in the United States or potentially be deported – although that is unlikely to happen quickly.

The United States removed only 4% of the roughly 290,000 unaccompanied children who entered the country from fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2019, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data.

WHAT ARE THE CONDITIONS IN BORDER PATROL FACILITIES?

CBP facilities are not open to the public. But lawyers representing children in a decades-old class action lawsuit visited a facility in Donna, Texas, on March 11.

They found the facility packed with about 1,800 children, some as young as 1, said Leecia Welch, one of the lawyers, with conditions that suggested it was “vastly over capacity.”

Several children described sleeping on the floor or on metal benches, she said. The children were only allowed outside a few minutes every few days.

“They wanted fresh air and to see the sky,” Welch said.

WHAT IS THE U.S. DOING TO DEAL WITH THE INCREASE?

The Biden administration is creating joint processing centers to transfer the children promptly into HHS custody after they arrive at the border, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on Tuesday.

The administration has opened several emergency shelters for children in Texas and plans to use the Dallas convention center to house up to 3,000 migrant teen boys.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – which usually responds to floods, storms, and other major disasters – was deployed on Saturday to help shelter and transport children at least until early June.


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In the longer-term, Biden is trying to establish programs that allow Central Americans to apply for refugee status in the United States from their home countries and improve conditions in those countries.

As part of that effort, the administration announced the restart of a program that allows certain Central American children with parents lawfully living in the United States to apply for a refugee resettlement from their home countries.

Biden has pledged to push for $4 billion in U.S. aid for Central America to help address the factors that drive migration, such as poverty and crime.