- The Washington Times - Friday, April 9, 2021

COVID-19 exists in every shelter holding migrant kids, with some of those shelters reporting positivity rates above 30%, according to data filed Friday in a federal court case over the treatment of the children.

Of the 12,313 unaccompanied children who were in custody of the federal Health and Human Services Department as of March 31, 558 of them were COVID-19 positive. That’s a rate of about 4.5%.

The children are scattered at more than 70 shelters, ranging from a four-bed site in New York to multiple sites with more than 1,000 beds in California and Texas. Even the four-bed shelter had one case as of March 31, according to Aurora Miranda-Maese, the coordinator reporting to a federal judge on conditions in the HHS-run facilities.

The number of positive cases likely surged since the March 31 data, since the population being held in the facilities rose nearly 50% between then and April 7, the most recent date for which the coordinator reported a total figure.

Most of the children with coronavirus acquired it before they were placed in the facilities, meaning they either brought it into the U.S. with them when they jumped the border or caught it from fellow infected kids while being held in overcrowded Border Patrol facilities.

The unaccompanied children are those who show up at the border without parents. Under current U.S. policy, most of them are required to be processed by border authorities and turned over to HHS shelters within 72 hours. The shelters are then to try to place them with sponsors.

Children who show up with parents are a separate category.

Some of those families are being expelled under a coronavirus pandemic health emergency order, but the majority are being admitted. The Biden administration blames Mexico for not being willing to take them back across the border.

Most families admitted are being released directly into border communities, but some are being transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for short-term processing at two facilities in Texas.

According to a court-ordered report on those ICE facilities, 13.5% of the population was COVID-19 positive as of April 2.

That may be higher than the actual rate of positive cases among the families, since migrants who test positive are held in isolation until their cases are cleared. Those who test negative are supposed to be released within 72 hours, under ICE’s current target timetable.

Overall, the government has improved its handling of migrants with COVID-19.

The Border Patrol doesn’t have capacity to test, instead settling for a quick health assessment, so in the early going, as the number of families began to overwhelm agents, they were releasing parents and children into communities without any testing.

Some communities were able to step up and do testing, usually relying on local nonprofits, but even then they admitted they didn’t have the power to force quarantines. And many jurisdictions didn’t have nonprofits that had the capacity to handle testing.

Now, most communities along the border do have capacity and can quarantine, with federal reimbursement for the costs. And in communities where the capacity is still lacking, Homeland Security says it’s now paying for a contractor to do testing.

Friday’s coordinator reports were ordered by U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee, who from her California courtroom has been one of the most influential figure in setting the trajectory of illegal migration to the U.S. over the last five or six years.

A 2015 ruling by Judge Gee limiting the time families could be held in detention helped spur the family migrant surges of 2016 and 2019, and a new family surge is developing now, based on the latest border numbers.

One of the coordinator reports by Henry A. Moak Jr., the chief accountability officer at Customs and Border Protection, said this surge has created “unprecedented and unique challenges.”

He described conditions in the border facilities as so crowded that social distancing is impossible, but said masks are distributed and regularly replaced for the migrants, and agents who process and care for the people in custody are required to wear N-95 respirators.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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