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The Struggle To House Surge Of Unaccompanied Children At U.S.-Mexico Border

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last month alone, more than 9,000 children and teenagers traveling without their parents crossed the southwest border without authorization and were taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. So many unaccompanied minors have been arriving that the Biden administration is struggling both to provide adequate housing for them and to process their cases in the time required by U.S. law.

This weekend, the administration announced that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will now help manage and care for these children and teens over the next three months. All of this is unfolding as Congress prepares to take up immigration reform this week, so we're going to start with that story again today, and we called Mark Greenberg for his perspective. He is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute focused on immigration issues affecting families and children. He also served in the Obama administration and worked closely with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the unaccompanied children program.

Mark Greenberg, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARK GREENBERG: And thanks very much.

MARTIN: You know, this is such a hot-button area. And this issue, as we know, of migration broadly, particularly from the southern border, has been such a political football over the past couple of years. I'm just going to ask you to establish the facts. How many people are arriving at the border? And how significant is this compared to past years?

GREENBERG: The current situation is really about unaccompanied children, children arriving without parents or guardians, because for people who are coming in families or people coming in singles, most are still being sent back and not allowed into the country. But for unaccompanied children, the Biden administration made the decision to stop expelling them, to allow them to come into the country when they come to the border, and once in the country, to be able to come into what's known as the shelter system, the system where services are provided to them. And there's an effort to get them to family members so that they can live in the country while they're having their immigration cases heard.

The thing that is making the situation, I think, particularly challenging for the administration is that the Trump administration had actually built up a significant number of shelter beds to be available for arriving children. But large numbers of those beds aren't available now because of the situation with the pandemic.

MARTIN: And why aren't those shelter beds available? - because there's a need to keep them more distant? There needs to be more space between the beds or - why is it that those shelter beds aren't available?

GREENBERG: Right. It's a combination of factors. And the reasons for that include state and local requirements during the pandemic, the need to follow CDC guidelines, the need to quarantine and in some cases isolate children when they arrive, and the fact that sometimes staff members have been absent because they are sick. So all of those factors taken together significantly reduce the number of beds that were actually available for arriving children.

MARTIN: So is there something that this administration could have done differently? I mean, recognizing that they've only been in office for under two months, and there was not the kind of cooperation that normally one sees when administrations change hands. You know, there were reports of that. There were, you know, reports that, you know, people were not getting the kind of access to departments that they should have been and things of that sort. But even having said all that, is there something the administration could have done better to handle this? Is there a way that it - could the administration have foreseen this in some way?

GREENBERG: There really was no simple solution here. I think it was broadly recognized that if governments stopped expelling children at the border that more children were going to come in. And there wasn't any ready way to know how many children, but it was clear that there were going to be more children coming in.

The challenge that the new administration faced is that they just didn't have a lot of room to work with because the number of beds available were so reduced. They appear to be doing anything they can think of to increase the number of beds right now and to increase the available shelters for the children, but, you know, it's the kind of thing that just can't be done by flipping a switch. And it does take time. And they are, I think, struggling with the challenges of the numbers of arriving children as against the number of beds and shelters that are available for them.

MARTIN: So what would a fixed system look like when it comes to receiving and housing young unaccompanied migrants? Is there a fix?

GREENBERG: So there are longer-term issues and shorter-term, more immediate ones. The longer-term issue is really helping the Central American countries in dealing with the underlying factors that are leading to so many children leaving, and that is helping them in addressing crime and violence and poverty and ways in which the structure of services in their countries could be strengthened. So that's the longer-run strategy, and it's one that the administration, I think, is recognizing is a crucial part of addressing this.

In the short run, it is really the challenge right now of finding ways to expand available shelter facilities for arriving children. And then once children are in the facilities, there is a process of figuring out if they have a parent or relative or someone else they can live with. That involves what's referred to as a vetting process to be sure that this will be someone who would be safe and appropriate to live with. And there are things that can be done to speed that process, but it's also really important to not cut corners in ways that potentially lead to bad decisions and put children at greater risk.

MARTIN: That was Mark Greenberg with the Migration Policy Institute. He previously served in the Obama administration. Mr. Greenberg, thank you so much for sharing your time with us.

GREENBERG: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.