Here are questions and answers about why children are crossing the border alone, and what happens to them in government custody.
Who are the unaccompanied children crossing the border?
The children are migrants under 18 years old who cross the border without a parent or legal guardian. They range in age from toddlers to teenagers, the youngest often traveling with older siblings or other relatives, who are typically also under 18.
From October through January, more than 19,000 immigrant children, mostly from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, crossed the border illegally, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. U.S. facilities have been over capacity with children twice in the past decade—in 2014 and 2019.
Why are they traveling to the U.S.?
Most of the immigrant children coming to the U.S. are trying to reunite with parents or other relatives already living here, according to immigration authorities and advocates. Migrants, especially those from Central America, tend to leave their countries because of a mix of extreme poverty, worsened by the pandemic, and persecution by gangs, advocates have said.
Like many other migrants, most of the children are likely to ask for asylum or some other protection in the U.S., according to immigration authorities and lawyers representing children.
Asylum is a legal protection that people can seek, if they are fleeing political, religious or other persecution in their home countries. Though crossing the border without permission is illegal, U.S. law allows foreigners to apply for asylum no matter how they entered the country. Most people who ask for asylum in the U.S. ultimately lose their cases, according to Justice Department data.
Migrants have been crossing the border illegally in increasing numbers since last summer for a range of reasons. Those include worsening economic conditions across Latin America brought on by the pandemic and a pair of hurricanes that hit Central America last summer. Smugglers have also been telling migrants that the Biden administration would be more lenient on illegal immigration than the Trump administration was, government officials said.
The Biden administration has said that while it is changing U.S. immigration policies, migrants shouldn’t attempt to enter the country now.
Are children at the border treated differently from adults?
Under immigration law, the government can’t deport children as quickly as it can adults and even families. Because there is a risk that children arriving at the border could have been trafficked or fled an abusive parent, they must be given a chance to apply for asylum or another form of protection that would allow them to stay permanently.
People who support more restrictive immigration policy say that the guarantee to be able to stay in the U.S., often for years, incentivizes parents to send children to cross the border in hopes that they stand a better chance of being admitted alone.
What happens once children cross the border?
Children crossing without adult relatives routinely surrender to a Border Patrol agent as soon as they spot one, according to Border Patrol officials.
Under a government directive during the Covid-19 pandemic, most families and single adults are quickly sent back to Mexico. Unaccompanied children are taken to Border Patrol stations, where they are given a brief medical screening. Border agents also work to identify the children and where they are from. Children trying to reunite with their families in the U.S. often carry slips of paper with contact names and numbers.
Under law, the Border Patrol can keep children in custody for up to 72 hours and then must transfer them to shelters around the country that are licensed to care for children. These shelters are operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the ORR, housed under the Department of Health and Human Services.
When many children arrive at the border at once, many shelters may not have enough space for them, and they wait in Border Patrol stations. Cells in Border Patrol facilities aren’t designed to house children and often have only a bench and a toilet. Border Patrol agents also aren’t trained to care for children.
Where do the children go after they are moved to shelters?
The ORR finds and vets adult sponsors, typically a family member or family friend living in the U.S., who can take on the children for the duration of their time in the U.S. If a relative can’t be located, children can be placed with other vetted sponsors, akin to a foster family. In rare cases, a child can be held in a government shelter until turning 18. Some children could then face deportation, while others could be released to continue their cases.
There is no limit on how long children can be held in government shelters. As of January, children were in ORR care for an average of 42 days, the agency said this week.
How is the pandemic affecting the government’s facilities for children?
Normally, the ORR can accommodate up to 13,200 children at a time. Since the pandemic started, the office has imposed social-distancing requirements and reduced bed space by 40% at its shelters. Shelter space has nearly reached capacity.
Why did the government reopen the shelter in Carrizo Springs?
The Biden administration said it reopened the shelter to provide 700 beds for teenage migrants and reduce the time that they wait in Border Patrol custody, while the ORR seeks an open shelter bed.
The Biden administration also plans to reopen an emergency shelter in Homestead, Fla., called Biscayne, which ORR closed in 2019 following criticism of the treatment of children there. That shelter, formerly called Homestead, isn’t expected to open before April.
What do advocates working with the immigrants say about the Carrizo Springs shelter reopening?
Immigration advocates criticized the emergency shelter because it isn’t licensed to care for children, so it doesn’t need to comply with the same standards of care. They said that under the Trump administration the government was too quick to rely on emergency, unlicensed facilities rather than opening licensed shelters. They also criticized the appearance of the shelter, which is a converted dormitory for oil workers surrounded by a chain-link fence.
What are the political ramifications for the Biden administration over the shelter reopening?
President Biden has faced criticism from Republicans and progressive Democrats for his plans to undo immigration restrictions imposed by the Trump administration and to provide a legalization pathway to immigrants already in the U.S. without a permanent legal status. The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, estimates that number of immigrants at 11 million.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) this week tweeted in reference to the reopening of the Carrizo Springs facility, “This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay—no matter the administration or party.”
Mr. Biden’s critics blame the recent uptick of immigration on his efforts to ease the Trump administration’s restrictions. Stephen Miller, a former Trump administration senior adviser focused on immigration, said on Fox News on Wednesday, “He came into office and announced that…young people who come into this country illegally are going to be resettled instead of returned.”
These critics say the Trump restrictions shouldn’t be rolled back.
What are some people referring to when they say children are being held in cages?
This discussion focuses on a Border Patrol processing center opened by the Obama administration in McAllen, Texas, during the 2014 child migrant crisis. That facility, also used by the Trump administration, had areas with chain-link fence walls to hold unaccompanied children, families and single adults. The facility didn’t have beds, so anyone held there overnight slept on thin mats on the floor. The facility was closed in November for renovations.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.