The Biden administration is responding to criticism over its handling of a large number of migrant children arriving at the United States’s southern border, saying it is working to rebuild an asylum system that was dismantled by former President Donald Trump.
In an interview on Sunday with ABC News programme This Week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged the influx of unaccompanied children presents a challenge.
“Why is it especially challenging and difficult now? Because the entire system under United States law that has been in place … was dismantled in its entirety by the Trump administration,” Mayorkas said.
“So we are rebuilding the system as we address the needs of vulnerable children who arrive at our borders.”
In a separate interview with CNN on Sunday, Mayorkas said the US plans to open new facilities to house the unaccompanied minors who have crossed into the country in recent weeks. He did not provide an exact timeframe or more details.
President Joe Biden, who took office in January, has promised to undo some of his predecessor’s anti-immigration policies, including lifting the so-called “Muslim ban” and other hardline measures that led to family separation.
But Biden administration officials said last week that more immigrants are arriving at the US-Mexico border than have in the past 20 years.
The situation has spurred criticism from Republicans, who blame Biden’s immigration policies for the increase in arrivals, as well as from progressive legislators and immigration advocates, who say the US needs to do more to protect vulnerable migrants and give them a real pathway to asylum.
CBS News reported on Saturday that the US government was holding about 15,500 unaccompanied migrant children, including 5,000 who had been stranded at border facilities not suitable for long-term detention.
“According to the government records, unaccompanied children are spending an average of 136 hours in CBP custody, well beyond the 72-hour limit outlined in US law,” CBS said.
The Biden administration this month ordered the federal agency that normally deals with natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes to help care for the unaccompanied minors.
The Pew Research Center said US authorities encountered 18,945 family members and 9,297 unaccompanied children in February, an increase of 168 percent and 63 percent respectively, compared with the month before.
But the detention of migrant children has prompted particular concern from lawyers and other migrant advocates, some of whom have been able to assess conditions in the detention facilities.
Last week, The Associated Press news agency reported that US authorities had suspended new arrivals at a camp for oil field workers in the US state of Texas that had been converted to hold migrant teenagers.
Questions had been raised about safety at the site, after more than 10 percent of the children held there had tested positive for COVID-19 and at least one child was hospitalised, the news agency said.
At another facility, some children were sleeping on the floor while others did not have access to a shower for five days, AP reported.
A bipartisan group of US senators accompanied Mayorkas on Friday in a visit to Texas facilities holding unaccompanied migrant children.
“Just left the border processing facility. 100s of kids packed into big open rooms. In a corner, I fought back tears as a 13 yr old girl sobbbed [sic] uncontrollably explaining thru a translator how terrified she was, having been separated from her grandmother and without her parents,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy tweeted.
Murphy said while children are no longer being separated from their parents at the border and can stay in the US and apply for asylum, relatives who are not their parents cannot stay with them in the US.
The Biden administration has left in place a Trump-era rule, known as Title 42, that allows US authorities to swiftly expel immigrants who arrive at the US border in search of asylum.
Just left the border processing facility. 100s of kids packed into big open rooms. In a corner, I fought back tears as a 13 yr old girl sobbbed uncontrollably explaining thru a translator how terrified she was, having been separated from her grandmother and without her parents.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) March 19, 2021
But Murphy said the Biden administration is moving as quickly as it can to respond.
Mayorkas on Sunday said the message to would-be asylum seekers is clear: “Do not come.”
“We are encouraging children not to come. Now is not the time to come. Do not come. The journey is dangerous. We are building safe, orderly and humane ways to address the needs of vulnerable children. Do not come,” Majorkas said.
RAICES Texas, a group that provides legal services to immigrant children, families and asylum seekers, has said the arrival of unaccompanied minors to the US is not new, however – and it urged the government to go beyond rebuilding what the Trump administration dismantled.
“Every year there are thousands of people knocking at our door, whether it be under [former President Barack] Obama, Trump or current President Joe Biden,” the group said in a statement last week.
“What we need is not just a fix to the system that was obliterated by the Trump administration, but rather an entirely different approach to this issue all together.
“We need an immigration system that recognizes the cyclical reality at hand and seeks to welcome our migrant sisters and brothers, with recognition of why they have and continue to be uprooted from their home countries in the first place.”
Everyone is blaming the number of children for this so-called “border crisis.”
The truth is the government had years to plan a humane approach. pic.twitter.com/QpMFEBRMrn
— RAICES (@RAICESTEXAS) March 19, 2021