The Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) shelter system received 122,000 migrant children who were taken into U.S. custody without their parents in fiscal year 2021, an all-time high that shattered previous records, according to new government figures obtained by CBS News.
In fiscal years 2016 and 2019, when the previous records were set, HHS received 59,000 and 69,000 unaccompanied migrant children, respectively, historical government statistics show. During a six-month period starting this March, more than 92,000 unaccompanied minors were transferred to HHS.
The record number of shelter transfers was fueled by the unprecedented arrival of 147,000 unaccompanied children to the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2021, which ended in October.
This year’s historic child migration wave, which initially peaked in March before reaching a new all-time high in July, posed major logistical, humanitarian and political challenges for the Biden administration, which has declined to use a COVID-19 policy started under former President Donald Trump to expel unaccompanied minors.
“The program faced an unprecedented challenge at the beginning of this year,” a senior official at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the HHS agency that cares for unaccompanied children, told CBS News on Wednesday.
The official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal plans, said HHS is preparing for another potential sharp increase in arrivals of migrant children next year by expanding capacity at traditional shelters and identifying two sites in New Mexico and North Carolina that could be converted into emergency housing facilities.
Border arrivals of unaccompanied children have declined since the summer, but U.S. officials recorded processing nearly 14,000 migrant minors traveling without parents last month, the highest tally for any November in history.
Just weeks after President Biden took office, HHS shelters reached their pandemic-era maximum capacity. By March, U.S. Border Patrol facilities, which are not designed to hold children beyond 72 hours, became dangerously overcrowded with unaccompanied minors whom HHS did not have the space to house.
In response, the Biden administration converted more than a dozen convention centers, military installations, work camps and other facilities into “emergency intake sites” to quickly process and house the record number of children crossing the southern border illegally without their parents. It also reopened a dormant “influx” facility.
The emergency HHS sites alleviated the severe overcrowding inside Border Patrol facilities. But they also highlighted the risks of placing migrant children in makeshift housing facilities that were not designed to house minors and lacked the standards of care enforced at traditional HHS shelters.
Conditions varied across the emergency sites. But two of them were abruptly closed in the spring, including a Houston warehouse where migrant girls reported being served undercooked food, having limited access to showers and a lack of outdoor recreation.
At the largest site, a tent complex inside the Fort Bliss Army base in Texas, migrant teens reported mental health distress, inadequate services and prolonged stays. Children there were constantly monitored for escape attempts, panic attacks and self-harm. After the conditions were publicly reported in June, HHS took remedial measures.
Most of the emergency sites have since closed, except for three facilities, including the Fort Bliss tent camp. There are no immediate plans to close the sites, the senior HHS official said, noting that one of them, a former work camp in Pecos, Texas, is being converted into a more permanent “influx” facility.
HHS has been making preparations to be able to open “influx” facilities at an academy campus in Greensboro, North Carolina, and a summer camp in Glorieta, New Mexico, if traditional shelter space is again depleted, the senior department official said.
The department also instituted several policies this year to expedite the placement of unaccompanied children with sponsors, typically family members residing in the U.S., reducing their average length of stay at HHS facilities to 30 days, down from the 102-day average in 2020.
More than 107,000 migrant children in HHS care were released to sponsors during fiscal year 2021, another record. The states with the highest number of placements were Texas, Florida, California and New York, which collectively received more than 45,000 unaccompanied children.
As of Wednesday, HHS had nearly 12,000 unaccompanied minors in its custody, a 46% drop from the record 22,500 children it was housing at one point in April. Roughly 2,800 children remained at the three emergency housing sites on Wednesday, according to internal HHS data.
Leecia Welch, a lawyer representing migrant children in a federal court case, said HHS should focus on speeding up the vetting of sponsors and expanding bed capacity at shelters and foster homes. Citing multiple visits, including to Fort Bliss, Welch called the emergency site system a “complete failure as a means of caring for traumatized children.”
“We urge the government to do some deep soul searching and learn from past mistakes — especially around the need for more foster homes for immigrant children,” said Welch, a lead counsel at the New York-based Children’s Rights group.
HHS next year will also need to address Republican-led states’ objections to the resettlement of unaccompanied minors. Texas and Florida both announced measures this year to restrict state child-welfare licenses for HHS shelters housing migrant children, prompting the Biden administration to consider federal licensing.
The vast majority of the migrant children who entered HHS custody this past fiscal year hailed from Central America. According to the figures, 47% were from Guatemala, 32% from Honduras and 13% from El Salvador. Mexican children accounted for just 1% of the unaccompanied minors transferred to HHS facilities.
Nearly three-quarters of all migrant children placed in HHS custody this past fiscal year were teens between the ages of 15 and 17, the statistics show. 13- and 14-year-olds accounted for 13% of minors who entered HHS care, while the remaining 16% were 12 or younger, a group the government calls “tender age” children.
Roughly two-thirds of the unaccompanied minors sent to HHS-overseen housing facilities in fiscal year 2021 were boys, according to the data. Girls comprised 34% of transfers to HHS.
Migration experts said the historic number of unaccompanied minors taken in U.S. custody this year was partly driven by persistent conditions in some Central America communities, including crushing poverty, hunger, lack of economic opportunities, violence and displacement caused by natural disasters.
Mr. Biden’s election, as well as some policy changes announced by his administration, also led smugglers to tell migrant youth they had a better chance of being allowed to stay in the U.S. than they had under Trump, the experts said.
Another potent push factor is a desire for family reunification. Over 80% of unaccompanied children who enter U.S. care have family members in the U.S., many of whom are also undocumented, according to government estimates.
“A lot of children in northern Central American countries have parents or other family members here. And they want to be with their families, which is a very human thing,” said Essey Workie, a Migration Policy Institute researcher who studies U.S. policies that affect unaccompanied minors.