As long-term facilities for immigrant children reach capacity, the Biden administration has reopened a surge facility in South Texas, drawing criticism from lawmakers and immigration advocates alike.
The facility can hold up to 700 teenagers, and houses immigrant children between ages 13-17 who have crossed the border without a parent while government officials work to find their family members and vet them in order to release the child in their care. The site, made up of several trailers and large tents, is located in Carrizo Springs, about a 2-hour drive southwest of San Antonio.
The emergency shelter spans 66 acres and includes stations for legal services, classrooms and hair salons.
The news of the facility’s opening, first reported by the Washington Post this week, was condemned by RAICES, a San Antonio nonprofit that provides legal services to underserved immigrants.
“We are shocked and saddened that, after four years of widespread public condemnation to migrant children being held in cages at the border, this country is still detaining kids for nothing more than crossing a border. These children have relatives in the country and should be immediately reunited with them,” the organization said in a statement.
The Biden administration’s decision “represents a chilling continuity of the Trump administration’s attitudes towards immigrants,” the organization said.
“Though the Carrizo Springs facility is different from the ‘cages’ denounced during the Trump administration, it is still an unsuitable facility for children who have already endured great hardship,” according to the statement.
Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber told the Washington Post that the Biden administration retooled the facility to put more focus on child welfare, a departure from the previous administration’s reliance on law-enforcement presence.
The Trump administration’s use of those facilities sparked protests in 2019 and drew heavy criticism from Democrats.
The White House pointed to an influx in migrants and COVID protocols requiring more space for housing people.
“We had to expand and open additional facilities because there was not enough space in the existing facilities if we were to abide by COVID protocols,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.
Psaki noted that Biden halted a Trump-era practice of expelling unaccompanied immigrant children under public health law, though the U.S. still expels immigrant families and single adults who cross the border without permission.
“Our objective is to move these kids quickly from there to vetted, sponsored families and to places where they can safely be,” she said.
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department (HHS) on Wednesday authorized operators of long-term facilities to pay for some of the children’s flights and transportation to the homes of their sponsors. Under the agency’s current guidelines, sponsors can be charged for those flights and required to pay before the government will release children, even if the sponsors have been vetted by the government.
An internal memo sent Wednesday and obtained by The Associated Press authorizes facility operators to use government funding for transport fees “in the event that a sponsor is not able to pay fees associated with commercial airfare, and a child’s physical release would be otherwise delayed.” HHS declined to say how many flights would be funded.
Those costs can sometimes exceed $1,000 per child.
Leecia Welch, senior director of child welfare at the nonprofit National Center for Youth Law, said federal health department could have made several policy changes months ago that would alleviate what she called “a government-created crisis.”
She applauded the move to pay for flights and called on U.S. officials to explore other ways to release children from federal custody faster, including by raising the capacity of regular facilities while ensuring that protocols are followed to stop the spread of the virus.
“While we recognize the Biden administration’s efforts to process unaccompanied children in a responsible way that addresses public health needs and prioritizes children’s safety, it is critical that it not repeat the mistakes of the Trump administration,” Naureen Shah, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.