The Biden administration wants to create a permanent federal workforce to provide housing for unaccompanied migrant children during surges like the one that began in January and continues to overwhelm authorities.
“We all know that surges arise periodically,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a congressional hearing earlier this month. “They arose in 2019. They arose in 2016, in 2014 and well before that. Migration is a very dynamic and fluid challenge that we have faced for many, many years.”
Mayorkas said during the hearing that DHS is exploring options, but the agency did not respond to a Stateline request for more detail.
Currently, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, houses the children by relying on state-licensed contractors. But Republican governors in Iowa, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming recently blocked contractors in their states from taking in the children, claiming that the unaccompanied kids would displace those already in state foster care or limit states’ ability to make new placements.
However, there currently are no federally funded long-term foster care providers for unaccompanied minors in any of those five states.
Between March 13 and May 1, the Federal Emergency Management Agency assisted in the activation of 14 HHS Emergency Intake Sites in states including California, Michigan and Texas, increasing the potential temporary bed capacity by 19,987 beds.
But these emergency sites are not licensed or suited for long-term child care. Children without sponsors in the U.S. may spend more than a year in HHS custody while their cases play out in immigration court.
During this month’s congressional hearing, Mayorkas blamed the Trump administration for the recent overflow of unaccompanied minors, noting that the administration failed to increase bed capacity and imposed a months-long hiring freeze at the Office of Refugee and Resettlement that hindered HHS’s ability to respond quickly to the surge of unaccompanied children.
“The prior administration failed to activate additional bed capacity in the fall of 2020 despite early signs of an upward trend in unaccompanied children referrals,” Mayorkas said in his written testimony.
In fiscal 2019, HHS reduced the number of available beds for unaccompanied minors from 16,000 to 13,000, according to the agency’s monthly records. Several announcements requesting bids for new providers or shelter and services for unaccompanied children were also closed in fiscal 2020, HHS records show.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, argued during the congressional hearing that the influx was caused by the Biden administration’s decision to lift the Title 42 order for unaccompanied migrant children.
“Don’t blame the previous administration for not having facilities that they didn’t need because they didn’t have a surge,” Portman said.