FORT WORTH, Texas — The federal foster care system was unprepared to house the record nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children who came to the United States in March, so the Biden administration asked some states to temporarily house them.
Republican governors in Iowa, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming said no.
The governors claim that unaccompanied children would displace those already in state foster care or limit states’ ability to make new placements.
“Nebraska is declining their request because we are reserving our resources for serving our kids,” Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said in an April 13 news release. “I do not want our kids harmed as the result of President Biden’s bad policies.”
But federal officials note that care providers for unaccompanied children are paid via federal grants and operate separately from state child welfare systems.
Caring for unaccompanied children does require some limited state resources, because states license and monitor foster care providers contracted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency in charge of housing unaccompanied minors.
However, there currently are no federally funded foster care providers for unaccompanied minors in any of the five states where Republican governors have expressed concerns, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services records analyzed by Stateline show.
The children who have been placed there are most likely being taken in by family members, according to Mary Miller Flowers, senior policy analyst for child protection at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, an advocacy group based in Chicago.
The issue of unaccompanied minors will continue to roil states as immigration remains one of the most potent political issues for many Republican governors. Some states, such as Texas, are pushing to end the Biden administration’s policy allowing migrants, including unaccompanied children, into the country while they await hearings.
“The heartbreaking humanitarian crisis on our border was created by the Biden Administration,” tweeted South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster shortly after issuing an executive order on April 12, directing state-licensed foster care facilities to reject the placement of migrant children. “Sending unaccompanied migrant children from the border to states like South Carolina only makes the problem worse.”
Ricketts and McMaster’s offices did not answer requests for comment.
But the Trump administration reduced the number of beds for unaccompanied children and closed government requests for bids to provide shelter and services, according to government grants and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services bed capacity data analyzed by Stateline.
Law enforcement encountered 18,663 unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border in March, the highest number of any month on record for this group of migrants, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
After apprehension, unaccompanied children are by law supposed to spend no more than 72 hours in Customs and Border Protection custody before being transferred to the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. This transfer is particularly important because CBP facilities are ill-equipped to hold children, especially for long periods of time, according to Flowers.
To deal with the surge, HHS has opened about a dozen Emergency Intake Sites and Influx Care Facilities in California, Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania. These sites, located inside convention centers, fairgrounds and military bases, do not have to be licensed by the state and are meant to hold unaccompanied children only for a short period of time while they are tested for COVID-19, quarantined and placed with a vetted family member or sponsor.
In more than 80% of cases, the child has a family member in the United States, according to HHS. Finding long-term foster care for those who don’t have a sponsor falls on the Office of Refugee Resettlement and its network of more than 200 providers in 22 states.
Foster care providers who care for unaccompanied children include the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, BCFS Health and Human Services, Upbring, and Urban Strategies.
While the number of unaccompanied child migrant arrivals fell during the early months of the pandemic, the arrivals began to grow in August and accelerated after a court ordered the Trump administration in November to exempt unaccompanied children from the Title 42 expulsion order. That order authorizes the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to suspend the introduction of persons into the U.S. to protect public health, according to the CDC website.
Predictably, the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border subsequently rose, but the Trump administration did not build the capacity to accommodate them, Office of Refugee Resettlement bed capacity data shows.
On Feb. 28, the Office of Refugee Resettlement had 13,612 available beds, according to the latest HHS data. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the bed space for unaccompanied children had been reduced, according to Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, an advocacy group that provides pro bono legal representation for child migrants.
HHS data analyzed by Stateline shows there was a capacity of about 16,000 beds for unaccompanied minors in fiscal 2019 that was reduced to about 13,000 by the end of that fiscal year. In 2020, several standing announcements requesting bids for new providers of shelter and services for unaccompanied children that would allow HHS to ramp up capacity were closed and have not been reopened, according to HHS records.
Instead, Office of Refugee Resettlement care providers in various parts of the United States who care for a small number of unaccompanied children in foster homes have been looking to expand their number of foster parents, particularly ones who are bilingual, according to an emailed statement from HHS.
“It could take over a year for a child’s case to make its way through court,” said Podkul. “That’s why it’s so important for ORR to have foster care families to provide short-term and longer-term foster care.”
Between October 2020 and February 2021, the Office of Refugee Resettlement placed a total of 10,596 unaccompanied children with sponsors in 47 states and in Washington D.C., according to the latest HHS data. Texas had the most placements, 1,460, followed by Florida with 1,078 and New York with 1,060. South Carolina received 142, Nebraska 109, South Dakota 20 and Wyoming four.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement does not have any providers in Iowa, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota or Wyoming, the states whose governors have refused to take the children. That means the children placed in those states most likely went to family members rather than federally funded foster homes licensed by the state.
But the Republican governors have said they are taking a stand to block the Biden administration from placing children in their state.
“This is not our problem,” said Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds on the “Need to Know with Jeff Angelo” program on April 8, according to an Associated Press report. “This is the president’s problem. He’s the one that has opened the border and he needs to be responsible for this and he needs to stop it.”
Multiple requests for comment from Reynolds went unanswered.
“South Dakota won't be taking any illegal immigrants that the Biden Administration wants to relocate,” tweeted South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on April 14. “My message to illegal immigrants ... call me when you're an American.”
Noem’s office declined to answer emailed questions from Stateline. “Gov. Noem is fulfilling her duty to keep the people of South Dakota safe,” said a statement provided by Noem’s office. “State resources will not be used to house illegal immigrants.”
“I want to state clearly and unequivocally that the State of Wyoming will not participate in relocation or housing efforts of illegal immigrants or unaccompanied minors, and I have made our position clear to Federal officials,” tweeted Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon on April 16.
Multiple requests for comment from Gordon went unanswered.
The most recent attempt to block unaccompanied children and other migrants came in the form of a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, on April 22. The lawsuit requests that the Biden administration reestablish the Title 42 rule to expel all migrants, including unaccompanied children, arguing that allowing migrants “potentially infected with COVID-19” to enter the country is a risk during the public health crisis.
On Nov. 18, a federal judge ruled that unaccompanied migrant children could not be expelled under Title 42. An appeals court in January ruled that the federal government could resume expelling unaccompanied children, but in February the Biden administration amended the Title 42 order to exempt them.
“The law does not permit any policy that turns away anyone under 18 that arrives at the border unaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian. That’s a federal law,” said Leah Chavla, senior policy advisor for migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, an international group advocating for the rights of refugee women, children and youth.
In March, the commission along with four dozen advocacy organizations wrote a letter to President Joe Biden after reports that Department of Homeland Security officials were considering using the Title 42 policy to expel 16- and 17-year-old unaccompanied children at the southern border.
As of April 28, the Biden administration was returning most single adults and many families trying to enter the country illegally under Title 42. These two groups comprise more than 90% of those encountered by federal agents, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
At least 37 of the 44 facilities licensed by the state of Texas to care for migrant children reported COVID-19 cases in March, affecting 258 kids and teenagers in shelters overseen by both Texas Health and Human Services and the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. An additional three migrants tested positive in state-licensed foster care, according to reports from Houston Public Media.
Earlier this month, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott ordered an investigation of child abuse and neglect inside an HHS Emergency Intake Facility in San Antonio. Abbott said the state had received multiple complaints, including allegations that children who had tested positive for COVID-19 were not being separated from those who had tested negative.
Texas state officials did not reply to requests for comment.
“It’s hard to tell how grave the situation at the border is without being there, but one thing we do know is that deterrents don’t work, they only make the problem worse,” said Chavla.
“I think the numbers we’re seeing make it clear that these children will continue coming here seeking our help even if we turn them away temporarily,” she added. “Cruel policies like Title 42 or family separation only hurt our soul as a nation.”