Federal Officials Raise Concerns About White House Pressure to Move Migrant Children

Drastic measures under consideration as Customs and Border Protection pushes to move migrant kids to Army bases, questionable facilities

illegal immigration children
Detained children sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville,Texas / AP
April 1, 2021

Federal officials are raising concerns about rising pressure from the White House to relocate unaccompanied minors to holding sites that those officials warn could pose a danger to the children—and violate a 1997 legal settlement that required the government to house minors in "safe and sanitary" facilities.

The latest indication of the bleak situation came Wednesday, according to sources familiar with the situation, when the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, told officials that the bureau is grappling with a White House directive to send kids to Fort Bliss, an El Paso, Texas, army base that is under construction, and to an emergency influx center in San Antonio, Texas.

Some officials warned against the move, arguing that it would "result in children sitting on buses" and "extremely dangerous ratios at the sites affected," referring to the ratio of children to adults. Those officials cited the 1997 Flores agreement between immigration groups and the federal government that requires immigration agencies to house unaccompanied minors in facilities that are "safe and sanitary."

"We are not going to speculate on what might be or not be internal deliberations," HHS spokesman Mark Weber told the Washington Free Beacon, adding that "additional capacity is urgently needed to manage both enhanced COVID-19 mitigation strategies and the increasing numbers" of migrants.

The Biden administration has been grappling from the outset with a mounting crisis on the border as the federal government struggles to handle a surge of unaccompanied minors streaming into the United States from Mexico.

Health secretary Xavier Becerra has in recent weeks been casting about for a way to beef up the number of federal officials at the border, and, according to a senior government official, was considering an agency mandate that would have required 200 HHS employees to temporarily relocate to the Southern border to help stem the migrant influx.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, however, Becerra was leaning instead toward calling for 300 agency volunteers to manage cases virtually, the official said.

Consideration of both plans came after the health secretary fell short of a promise to President Joe Biden to recruit 1,000 volunteers from across federal agencies to take paid details to the border. The would-be relocated employees were to be drawn primarily from the Administration for Children and Families, a division of HHS responsible, in part, for addressing the needs of "vulnerable populations," including migrants and refugees.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Customs and Border Protection referred inquiries to HHS.

The cascade of events offers a window into the increasingly desperate measures the Biden administration is considering as it struggles to process the influx of children to Border Patrol detention centers. Nearly 5,800 child migrants were housed at such facilities on Sunday, more than double the June 2019 record of 2,600.

Migrant numbers are expected to rise, according to a Wall Street Journal report, and the Biden administration this week began releasing minors to sponsors in the United States before background checks on those sponsors were completed, raising the risk for human trafficking.

Critics blame the migrant influx in part on the Biden administration’s decision to toss the Trump administration’s "Wait in Mexico" policy, which returned asylum seekers who entered the United States from Mexico to wait in Mexico until their cases were adjudicated. The president, by contrast, insists we are seeing a typical seasonal spike in border crossings, and the administration has refused to concede, despite mounting evidence, that it has a crisis on its hands. 

As the crisis has intensified, administration officials from across the government have called on employees to volunteer for what one agency called a "new detail" to the border that would last between one and four months, with travel, lodging, and a per diem reimbursed by HHS.

In an email sent Tuesday and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chair Charlotte Burrows asked agency employees to apply for stints at the border, the first such request in at least a decade. Burrows cited the "unprecedented influx of unaccompanied children at our Southern Border," calling on EEOC staffers "to lend support to this humanitarian effort."

"These children are alone, frightened, separated from family, and currently being housed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in holding areas that were not meant for children beyond a short period of time," Burrows wrote. The email was first reported by Bloomberg Law.  

The email notes that volunteers will be in "contact with migrant children and a variety of other Federal and non-Federal entities." A follow-up message containing an application link states that volunteers will "work 12-hour shifts" and do not need to be vaccinated to deploy. Mental health support is also provided "as conditions may be unsettling for some," the email states. 

The Department of Labor and Environmental Protection Agency have made similar appeals in recent days at the White House's request. 

Any boost in volunteers could help alleviate the strain on Border Patrol agents, some of whom have been pulled from the border to care for the migrants. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have expressed concern that the move will decrease enforcement and embolden cartels looking to smuggle drugs and illegal migrants into the United States.

A GOP congressional delegation toured the southern border over the weekend, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) lamenting what he called a "man-made crisis."

"When you gaze across a massive room with 2,200 teenage boys, it takes your breath away," Cruz said. "It is tragic. It is horrific."

Collin Anderson contributed to reporting