Homeland Security took major steps in recent days to try to get a handle on the surge of migrant children streaming across the southern border by making it easier for immigrant relatives who are in the U.S. illegally to come collect them, by asking FEMA to help care for them and by asking ICE deportation officers to volunteer to help with the children’s “security.”
The department acknowledged “record numbers” of children now mired at the border, and Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas late Saturday announced he’s ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to step forward to open and run its own detention centers.
“I am incredibly proud of the agents of the Border Patrol, who have been working around the clock in difficult circumstances to take care of children temporarily in our care. Yet, as I have said many times, a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child,” the secretary said.
He said FEMA and the Health Department have linked up and are looking to expand capacity.
Rep. John Katko, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said roping in FEMA means the administration is admitting the border is “a disaster by definition.
“If the secretary is tasking FEMA to help on the southwest border, it further demonstrates the severity of the situation,” the New York Republican said.
He also said he worried FEMA was being stretched too thin with hurricane season looming and the pandemic still ongoing.
Mr. Mayorkas continued to blame the Trump administration for the situation, saying he was left a broken immigration system not up to the test.
In fact, migrant numbers had been holding steady in late 2020, but have surged in recent weeks, coinciding with President Biden taking office and announcing a series of sweeping changed to undo many of the get-tough policies former President Donald Trump oversaw.
Yet earlier in the week Mr. Mayorkas revived a Trump-era idea, the “Volunteer Force,” which asked other Homeland Security agencies to let employees head to the border to help with the administrative and babysitting duties that are overwhelming Customs and Border Protection as it deals with children and families.
And on Thursday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement expanded that program, saying it was looking for deportation officers to volunteer to head to the border to help with the children.
“This situation mandates immediate action to protect the life and safety of federal personnel and the aliens in custody. To support its mission and mitigate the situation, CBP is in need of federal employees from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Components to assist in critical security functions,” wrote Michael W. Meade, acting assistant director for field operations at ICE. “To assist, ERO is seeking volunteers to support CBP with security operations for family units and UACs in CBP custody.”
ERO is Enforcement and Removal Operations, ICE’s 4,000-person deportation force. UACs are “Unaccompanied Alien Children,” the government’s term for the juveniles showing up at the border without parents.
Mr. Meade said those who step forward could get overtime pay.
More than 3,000 of the children are stacked up in holding cell facilities run by Customs and Border Protection. The children are supposed to be there fewer than three days, but the surge has left the administration struggling to meet that goal.
Under the current process, the children are supposed to be quickly transferred to HHS, which sends them to contracted shelters that try to find sponsors to take the children.
In a majority of cases, those sponsors are immigrants — often parents, but sometimes older siblings or aunts or uncles — already here illegally and living in the shadows.
On Friday, the Biden administration also took steps to get those relatives to come forward to claim their children by revoking a 2018 memo that had shared data on the potential sponsors so ICE could see if any of them were priority targets for deportation.
The memo had been largely defanged in subsequent years, but the Biden team believes it was still keeping making some sponsors wary.
“It really did have a chilling effect,” an administration official said in briefing reporters on the move.
In some cases those sending the children from Central America will write names and contact information of relatives on the children’s clothes, and even send birth certificates or other documents along with them to speed the reunification. Smugglers shepherd the children to the border, then the U.S. government completes the journey, delivering the children to the intended relatives.
In February, the median time for a child at the Health Department-run shelters was 24 days, though some children remain much longer, driving up the mean time to 37 days.