CARRIZO SPRINGS, Tex. — Dozens of migrant teens boarded vans Monday for the trip down a dusty road to a former man camp for oil field workers here, the first migrant child facility opened under the Biden administration.
Government officials say the camp is needed because facilities for migrant children have had to cut capacity by nearly half because of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border has been inching up, with January reporting the highest total — more than 5,700 apprehensions — for that month in recent years.
But immigration lawyers and advocates question why the Biden administration would choose to reopen a Trump-era facility that was the source of protests and controversy. From the “tent city” in Tornillo, Tex., to a sprawling for-profit facility in Homestead, Fla., emergency shelters have been criticized by advocates for immigrants, lawyers and human rights activists over their conditions, cost and lack of transparency in their operations.
“It’s unnecessary, it’s costly, and it goes absolutely against everything [President] Biden promised he was going to do,” said Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio-based immigration lawyer who represents unaccompanied minors. “It’s a step backward, is what it is. It’s a huge step backward.”
During the campaign, Biden pledged to undo former president Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies. In his first month in office, Biden signed several executive orders reversing many of those policies. Last week, he and House Democrats introduced a plan that would provide a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. The administration also reversed some of Trump’s expulsion practices by accepting unaccompanied children into the country, a change that also is contributing to an increase of minors in government facilities, officials said.
Mark Weber — a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees services for migrant children — said the Biden administration is moving away from the “law-enforcement focused” approach of the Trump administration to one in which child welfare is more centric.
At the 66-acre site, groups of beige trailers encircle a giant white dining tent, a soccer field and a basketball court. There is a bright blue hospital tent with white bunk beds inside. A legal services trailer has the Spanish word “Bienvenidos,” or welcome, on a banner on its roof. There are trailers for classrooms, a barber shop, a hair salon. The facility has its own ambulances and firetrucks, as well as its own water supply.
The operation is based on a federal emergency management system, Weber said. The trailers are labeled with names such as Alpha, Charlie and Echo. Staff members wear matching black-and-white T-shirts displaying their roles: disaster case manager, incident support, emergency management.
The most colorful trailer is at the entryway, where flowers, butterflies and handmade posters still hang on its walls from Carrizo’s first opening in 2019.
HHS has 13,200 beds for children, having exploded in growth in the past four years — adding more than 80 facilities for a total of about 200. Weber said putting children in permanent shelters is preferable to the influx shelters like Carrizo, but nearly half of those beds are unusable during the pandemic.
As of Sunday, there were about 7,000 children in HHS custody, over 90 percent capacity under pandemic-era requirements, Weber said. Carrizo is expected to close when the pandemic ends, he said.
“Every kid that comes into this program is a symptom of a broken immigration system,” said Weber, who has worked at HHS since 2012. “So today, we’ve got over 7,000 symptoms of a broken immigration system.”
Weber said the facilities received a bad rap under the Trump administration because many people associated them with the detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But the children always received good care and that never wavered between administrations, he said.
The majority of child migrant facilities are subject to state licensing requirements; temporary influx centers like Carrizo are not. However, Weber said Carrizo would “meet or exceed” Texas licensing standards if applicable. The influx facilities also cost more: about $775 a day per child compared with $290 a day for permanent centers.
Weber said the influx shelters keep children from ending up in Border Patrol stations, which have holding cells that were not designed for children. During the 2019 immigration surge, many migrants were stuck in overcrowded cells for prolonged periods that exceeded legal limits.
The detention centers overseen by ICE are reserved for adults or families and often are run by private prison companies. Carrizo Springs is run by the nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services, a government contractor for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency within HHS that focuses on unaccompanied children.
Most of these children arrive to the United States planning to reunite with sponsors — usually relatives or friends of the family. Office of Refugee Resettlement case managers work with the children to identify and conduct background checks on the sponsors. If cleared, children are released to live with them while they go through the immigration court process.
“When I read they were opening again, I cried,” said Rosey Abuabara, a San Antonio community activist who was arrested for protesting outside the Carrizo camp in 2019. “I consoled myself with the fact that it was considered the Cadillac of [migrant child] centers, but I don’t have any hope that Biden is going to make it better.”
She said despite what she’s heard about the camp’s amenities, the immense cost and scale of the Office of Refugee Resettlement operations points to a government program that profits from holding migrant children, who are shepherded in unmarked vans to remote areas with what she describes as little oversight.
Brandmiller, the lawyer, said people should take note of how these emergency shelters are often located in far-flung locations away from public view.
“This is done deliberately to shelve these children in places that are not only not readily accessible, but not accessible at all to anyone who cares about the quality of life of these kids, and whether or not they comply with the federal law,” she said, referring to the Flores Settlement Agreement, which recommends children not stay in unlicensed facilities for longer than 20 days.
HHS said its goal is that children will remain at Carrizo for about 30 days, though they are coming from at least two weeks of quarantine at other Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities in the region. The average stay for children in custody across its facilities is 42 days. In the 2020 fiscal year, migrant children spent an average of 102 days in federal government custody, according to HHS.
So far, no children in HHS care have been hospitalized for covid-19, Weber said.
“If we could find another way, that’d be great,” Weber said. “On the flip side, these kids just come in and they’re turned loose on the street, they end up being homeless kids.”
But Brandmiller is worried this is the latest government tactic to deter immigrants from seeking refuge in the United States. She said the Biden administration should not be reviving old systems but looking for new solutions.
“If they were actually addressing the issues that are endemic in a system that has been established for many years and is flawed, if they were addressing the inadequacies instead of creating a parallel jail for kids, I would have more hope,” she said.