The increase is beginning to mirror events in 2014 and 2019, when large numbers of migrant children and families overwhelmed border facilities – a situation the White House is scrambling to avoid.
Criticism is coming from all sides. Progressives have denounced the Biden administration's decision to open new facilities to shelter the migrant children, while immigration advocates argue that any length of detention is too long for minors. Republicans, meanwhile, are labeling the border situation a "crisis" and leveling accusations of hypocrisy at the administration, drawing equivalencies between Biden's actions and the Trump administration policies he and other Democrats have criticized.
The White House is in general attempting to thread a tricky needle with immigration policy: Officials are trying to convey hope to migrants and have pledged more efficient legal pathways to immigration while at the same time pleading patience and urging them not to travel to the border or cross illegally.
Roberta Jacobson, Biden's border czar, stressed during a press briefing Wednesday that the border is closed, repeating the sentiment multiple times in Spanish.
Border agents last March began expelling migrants immediately at the border under a public health order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the request of the Trump administration, turning them back to Mexico without arresting and processing them as normal.
Biden, to the dismay of advocates, has kept that order in place, but he announced early last month that his administration would stop turning away minors caught crossing the border by themselves.
Buoyed by Biden's win and pushed out of Central America by a pair of major hurricanes and long-present factors, including poverty and violence, the number of unaccompanied minors and families arriving at the border has swelled significantly in recent months, and border agents are intercepting migrant children traveling alone at levels that are severely straining the capacity of facilities run through the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for the care of unaccompanied migrant children as they await court proceedings.
Border agents made 9,000 encounters with minors traveling without adults at the border in February, a huge jump from the month prior and the highest monthly total since 2019, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security. Some officials are concerned that numbers in the coming months could break decades-long records.
Minors are typically detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection for a short time before they are transferred to HHS shelters. CBP facilities are not designed to hold children, and agents are not trained to properly care for them. By law, CBP cannot hold migrant children for more than 72 hours before transferring them to HHS's custody.
But the current influx means migrant minors are currently being held by border agents for more than four days, documents obtained by CNN show. Both the Obama and Trump administrations faced sharp criticism for holding minors well past the 72-hour limit during surges in demand for shelter space.
Once transferred to HHS custody, unaccompanied migrant childrens and teens are kept in shelters until officials can locate and vet a sponsor or family member already in the U.S. who can assume responsibility for the child – a process that typically takes weeks but can in some cases take months. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said last week that minors currently in HHS shelters are on average there for about a month.
Advocates argue that the process should be much shorter because most minors arrive at the border with the name and contact information of a family member already in the U.S.
By the end of February, the number of unaccompanied migrant children in HHS custody had reportedly risen to more than 7,000, pushing facilities to about 90% capacity. HHS typically has room for about 13,000 unaccompanied children in its shelters – state-licensed facilities around the country that are mostly run by contractors and tasked with providing food, living space and educational services among other things. But shelter capacity had been reduced to less than 8,000 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Biden administration in response instructed HHS to return facilities to their pre-pandemic capacities, prompting concerns about COVID-19 transmission. About 8,100 unaccompanied children are currently in HHS custody, according to the agency.
And with a surge in unaccompanied minors expected, Biden is looking to avoid the issues that tripped up his predecessors when they faced similar situations.
In 2019, the Trump administration was blasted after reports of abuse and unsafe and unsanitary conditions in both permanent and temporary shelters run by providers contracted by the federal government. The White House made matters worse for itself when, citing budget pressures, it canceled some athletic and educational programs at the facilities.
In 2014, former President Barack Obama's team was overwhelmed when the number of children served annually jumped from just under 10,000 to about 57,000. The administration urgently contracted with residential treatment facilities and group homes and shuttled migrant kids around the country to meet demand.
Restoring shelter capacity to pre-pandemic levels was one of the first actions Biden took in a bid to head off a crisis like those seen in 2014 and 2019.
"Additional shelter capacity will minimize the likelihood that children remain in Border Patrol stations longer than necessary, where they are also exposed to COVID-19 transmission risks as well as child welfare concerns associated with such settings. Over-capacity Border Stations pose a greater infection risk to children than ORR program sites that are operating at full licensed capacity but use other COVID-19 mitigation measures," an HHS spokesperson said in a statement.
But even adding capacity carries risks from all sides.
Despite making it a priority, support for Biden's handling of immigration has been soft – both publicly and even within his own party. He is already underwater on immigration issues: 49% of Americans disapprove of his approach, compared to 43% who approve, according to a recent CNN poll. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not have plans to bring Biden's marquee immigration reform bill – which he introduced on Day One of his presidency – to a floor vote this month.
He took flak from both sides for one of his first major moves in dealing with the influx, when DHS in late February reopened a temporary, Trump-era facility for migrant teens in Carrizo Springs, Texas – a decision that kicked off a political maelstrom, with some advocates slamming the administration's decision to open more facilities to hold migrant kids.
"This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay – no matter the administration or party," Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive New York Democrat, tweeted in reaction to the news.
Conservative figures, including Donald Trump Jr., said Biden was putting "kids in cages" just as Trump was critcized for doing and slammed the media for what they saw as a double standard in coverage.
"Kids in cages" became a catch-all phrase for criticism of a number of immigration policies implemented under the Trump administration but was often used in reference to Trump's systematic separation of thousands of migrant children from their families in a bid to deter migration to the border.
The facility reopened by the Biden administration last month is not one of the facilities with chain link enclosures that was used and criticized under both Obama and Trump. Biden opposed Trump's aggressive policy of child separation, though some unaccompanied minors arrive at the border with adults that are not their legal guardians and are subsequently separated from them.
The policial firestorm has only intensified since, as the Biden administration rushes to handle the influx while batting down accusations that there is a "crisis" at the border. The White House is also struggling with the increase in migrant families arriving at the border.
"I think there is a challenge at the border that we are managing, and we have our resources dedicated to managing it," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a press briefing last week, noting that he does not consider the situation at the border to be a crisis. He described the department as starting from "scratch" in crafting immigration policies after the actions of the Trump administration.
The situation and the administration's response have escalated. A large group of top officials, including Mayorkas, visited an HHS facility at the border over the weekend. The group "discussed capacity needs given the number of unaccompanied children and families arriving at our border, the complex challenges with rebuilding our gutted border infrastructure and immigration system, as well as improvements that must be made in order to restore safe and efficient procedures to process, shelter, and place unaccompanied children with family or sponsors," according to a readout of the trip provided by the White House.
The White House has also reportedly briefed lawmakers on the situation, and the administration is looking into opening more HHS shelters across the country to house migrant kids. Those facilities, according to The Miami Herald, include the Homestead detention center in Florida that was shut down in 2019 as allegations of abuse emerged. The administration also may use Fort Lee, a U.S. Army facility in Virginia, to house migrant children, according to Reuters.
"Obviously we recognize the challenge of having these unaccompanied children come across the border and the influx that we're certainly preparing for and preparing to approach. So, of course, we have to look for facilities and places where we can safely and humanely have these unaccompanied minors in the interim," press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week.
The administration also says it is taking steps to dramatically speed up the process of getting migrant kids out of shelters faster – and to free up space. The administration recently directed shelters to pay for flights or other modes of transportation for children to unite with their sponsors, even if the sponsors can't pay. Providers previously needed special permission to do so. Officials are also reportedly trying to speed up the background check progress for sponsors and proposing changes to forms potential sponsors are required to fill out.
The State Department on Wednesday announced that it is restarting the Central American Minors program, an Obama-era program aimed at reuniting kids from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras with parents who are legally in the U.S.
"This program provides a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the risks incurred in the attempt to migrate to the United States irregularly. The U.S. southern border remains closed to irregular migration, and we reiterate our warning that people not attempt that dangerous journey," the State Department said in a statement.
The administration is also moving to release migrant families into the interior of the U.S. within 72 hours of their arrival in a significant departure from Obama and Trump-era policy. Experts say that detention of any length is harmful for children, whether they are unaccompanied or arrive with family members.
Republicans are attacking Biden's immigration policies – which they say are incentivizing migrants to come to the border – and positioning immigration as one of the most pressing political issues at the moment.
House Republicans last week wrote to top Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Oversight and Reform, demanding a hearing on the Biden's administration's immigration actions.
"The Committee must hear from Biden Administration officials about their plans to mitigate this crisis, since it is a direct result of President Biden's unraveling of the prior administration's strict, deterrent-focused border policies," the group of Republicans, led by Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, wrote to Democratic Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, who heads the Oversight and Reform Committee.
Republicans in a separate letter accused Democrats of hypocrisy.
"Your silence on this issue in the last five weeks unfortunately suggests that you do not plan to hold the Biden Administration to the same standard to which you held the Trump Administration," Rep. Tom McClintock of California and several Republican colleagues wrote to Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat and head of the Judiciary Committee.
Trump has also weighed in, attacking Biden and describing the situation at the border as a "spiraling tsunami."
"Our border is now totally out of control thanks to the disastrous leadership of Joe Biden," Trump said.
When asked about Trump's statement, Psaki brushed it off.
"We don't take our advice or counsel from former President Trump on immigration policy, which was not only inhumane but ineffective over the last four years. We're going to chart our own path forward, and that includes treating children with humanity and respect, and ensuring they're safe when they cross our borders," Psaki said.