WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden will likely face questions during his first presidential news conference on Thursday about his handling of a rising number of unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Biden administration has struggled to house the children arriving without a parent or legal guardian, which has left the kids stuck in crowded border facilities for days.
WHO ARE THE UNACCOMPANIED CHILDREN ARRIVING AT THE BORDER?
About two-thirds of unaccompanied children caught at the border since Oct. 1, 2020, have been from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Mexican children make up most of the remainder.
As of Wednesday, more than 11,000 unaccompanied children were in the custody of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) refugee office that manages a government shelter system - the highest number since 2019.
Most of the kids in custody are teenagers, but hundreds are under 12 years old. The majority of unaccompanied children apprehended since Oct. 1, 2020, crossed through the Rio Grande Valley into Texas, according to CBP.
There were similar spikes in 2019 and 2014 under former President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama, respectively. Graphic here
WHY ARE THOUSANDS OF KIDS COMING TO THE BORDER?
Many unaccompanied children come to the United States to reunite with family members or escape violence and poverty in their home countries, according to immigration experts.
Central America has recently been battered by hurricanes and slumping economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has spurred more migration.
Republicans argue Biden has encouraged illegal immigration by rolling back many of the hard-line policies of his Republican predecessor. But border arrests have been gradually rising since April 2020, when countries shut borders due to the pandemic.
Biden told ABC in an interview earlier this month that it was nonsense that more migrants were coming because he is “a nice guy,” saying “they come because their circumstance is so bad.”
Biden officials and migrant advocates, however, acknowledge that the current increase is at least partly due to a recent policy change that allows unaccompanied children into the country after they were blocked for much of 2020.
ARE THE CHILDREN TRULY UNACCOMPANIED?
Some children do make the potentially dangerous trip to the border alone or with a smuggler, according to immigration experts. In other cases, children travel with older siblings, grandparents or other relatives, and can be split apart by CBP after being caught at the border.
Immigrant advocates are concerned that parents may be traveling to the border with their children and sending them to the United States alone so that they will be permitted to enter.
If the parents and children entered as a family, they could be expelled under Title 42, a Trump-era health order to limit the spread of COVID-19.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A CHILD ARRIVES AT THE BORDER?
Children are supposed to be transferred out of CBP custody to HHS-run shelters within 72 hours.
But when shelter space is limited, children can get stuck in border detention centers for longer periods - as is happening now.
The border stations were built to house adult men for short periods and could pose a COVID-19 health risk if they are overcrowded.
Once in the shelters, children can be released to parents or other sponsors, or placed in foster care. They can then pursue asylum cases, seek other ways to remain in the United States or potentially be deported - although that is unlikely to happen quickly.
The United States removed only 4% of the roughly 290,000 unaccompanied children who entered the country from fiscal years 2014 to 2019, according to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data.
WHAT ARE THE CONDITIONS IN BORDER PATROL FACILITIES?
CBP facilities are not open to the public. But photos seen by Reuters and other outlets this week showed children in crowded conditions inside a facility in Donna, Texas.
The Donna facility had nearly 3,400 migrants in custody as of March 17 - far above its 250-person capacity, according to internal CBP data reviewed by Reuters.
WHAT IS THE U.S. DOING TO DEAL WITH THE INCREASE?
Biden announced on Wednesday that Vice President Kamala Harris will lead U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central America to deal with the growing number of migrants trekking north to the United States.
Biden has pledged to push for $4 billion in U.S. aid for Central America to help address the factors that drive migration, such as poverty and crime.
The administration has also opened several emergency shelters for children in Texas, including one inside the Dallas convention center.
HHS said on Wednesday that another emergency shelter would open inside the San Diego Convention Center.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) - which usually responds to floods, storms and other major disasters - was deployed earlier this month to help shelter and transport children at least until June.
The administration is also restarting a program that allows certain Central American children with parents lawfully living in the United States to apply for refugee resettlement from their home countries.
Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Mimi Dwyer in McAllen, Texas, and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; editing by Ross Colvin and Rosalba O’Brien
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