Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra made a snap visit Monday to a shelter holding illegal immigrant children at the border in Texas and insisted he is making progress in improving their living conditions amid reports of lice outbreaks and youths facing mental breakdowns.
Mr. Becerra, whose department oversees the care of the children, said he is trying to shutter the emergency shelters that have sparked the complaints. But he said the Department of Health and Human Services can’t do so because the surge of children is still too unpredictable and, as of now, is still too overwhelming to handle with licensed facilities.
The tent shelter at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, once held more than 4,000 children who had jumped the border without parents. That was cut to fewer than 800 as of Monday, Mr. Becerra said.
His upbeat assessment contrasted with that of Vice President Kamala Harris, whose spokesperson said last week that she and President Biden took reports of poor conditions at the facility “extremely seriously” and ordered Mr. Becerra to start a “thorough investigation” and report back to them.
Instead, Mr. Becerra cast his trip — announced late last week — as one in a series of check-ins he is making to shelters.
“This visit today was a chance for me to continue to see the progress made at Fort Bliss,” he told reporters.
The conflicting messages are part of the Biden team’s unsteady handling of the border situation.
Ms. Harris was in El Paso on Friday but did not visit Fort Bliss, drawing some criticism. Prodded Monday by CBS News, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who escorted the vice president to the border, said Mr. Becerra was ordered to get a handle on matters.
“The vice president and the president directed Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services, to visit Fort Bliss, which is under his responsibility,” he told CBS News.
The shelters were supposed to be a high point for the Biden administration, allowing the government to get children out of Border Patrol facilities. Instead, they have proved to be a rough welcome for children who make the treacherous journey, often covering thousands of miles with smugglers, and then jump the border, counting on lenient treatment from U.S. officials.
Under the Trump administration, unaccompanied children were treated like other illegal immigrants during the pandemic. Most were immediately returned to Mexico. The Biden administration announced that it would welcome the children, sparking a record surge that, while lessened, remains at a near-record pace.
The change caught the federal machinery by surprise. HHS lacked bed space in licensed foster care centers to house the children, leaving them mired in Border Patrol facilities for days or weeks, in violation of the law. HHS opened 14 emergency shelters to take the children out of the custody of Customs and Border Protection.
Mr. Becerra said the tent shelters were better than the alternative.
“The point is that when I took office we had a number of kids, thousands of kids at CBP holding detention centers that weren’t supposed to be there. We quickly did what we had to do to find a place for these children that was safe and healthy,” he said.
A court-ordered monitor last week reported that girls at Fort Bliss faced “frequent lice outbreaks” and the facility’s shortage of socks and underwear was so severe that some girls were refusing to shower because they had no clean clothing.
“Some of the girls would stay in their bunks for most of the day and ask to skip meals. In May 2021, it was reported that girls experienced panic attacks, and several were removed from the residence tents on stretchers for outside medical treatment,” the monitor said.
Volunteers, pulled off duty from other federal departments and rushed to Texas, weren’t trained in what to do, the monitor said. Those volunteers have been replaced with contract employees, but the monitor said the contractors “come from companies with little experience in supervision of children in facilities” and will need training.
As of June 16, 60% of the children at Fort Bliss had been there three weeks or more.
Fort Bliss did add a daily Zumba class to its recreation tent, and the monitor said most children were positive about the food and cleanliness of their tents.
Cindy Huang, the new director at HHS’s office of refugee resettlement, said the unaccompanied children have shown improvements in mental health and have more religious, spiritual and recreational opportunities.
She said the office has a “robust system of collecting feedback” from children and staffers.
“You’re hearing that we began with a really emergent situation, and now we’re engaged in a process of continuous improvement,” she said.
Mr. Becerra said reports of abuse are handled as they arise. As of Monday, he said, Fort Bliss didn’t have any girls at the facility.
The secretary said his department’s goal is to “demobilize” shelters, but that is not feasible with the surge of children continuing.
“We will continue to ramp down on the emergency intake sites as we can accommodate the kids we currently have or are projecting to have, but we have to have a place where they can stay,” he said.
Officials said they could not estimate emergency costs because the numbers were still being tallied.
The current surge of unaccompanied juveniles at the border has shattered records. Although the peaks of this spring have dissipated, children from non-Mexican countries are arriving at a rate of about 450 a day, according to data released Monday.
HHS was holding 14,233 as of Sunday. That was down from a peak of more than 22,000 two months ago. HHS turns over the children to sponsors, usually relatives living in the U.S., often illegally.
Mr. Becerra said officials have been able to cut the numbers in custody by improving the speed of transferring children to sponsors.
“We’re able to discharge more of these children into the hands of a responsible, vetted custodian,” he said.
Mr. Becerra blamed Congress for the border situation. He said it’s up to lawmakers to legalize illegal immigrants and create pathways of migration.
“We’re dealing with a broken immigration system. That lack of a fix to our immigration laws, just the dire need to have a functioning immigration system, becomes clear when you see challenges unfolding here at the border,” he said.