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DHS Directs FEMA To Help With Surge Of Migrant Children At Southern Border

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, seen here on March 2 at a FEMA community vaccination center in Philadelphia, announced Saturday the agency will assist with the influx of migrant children at the U.S. southern border.
Mark Makela
Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, seen here on March 2 at a FEMA community vaccination center in Philadelphia, announced Saturday the agency will assist with the influx of migrant children at the U.S. southern border.

The Biden administration is mobilizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is known for responding to natural disasters and other crises, to support an effort over the next 90 days to process the growing number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the U.S. southern border.

The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement Saturday evening that the federal government is working to move unaccompanied children from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to the Department of Health and Human Services and "place them with a family member or sponsor until their immigration is adjudicated."

As NPR's Franco Ordoñez and John Burnett reported Thursday, a record number of minors are being held in warehouse-like detention facilities run by Customs and Border Protection, as the number of children arriving at the border without their parents grows faster than the Biden administration is able to transfer them.

"I am incredibly proud of the agents of the Border Patrol, who have been working around the clock in difficult circumstances to take care of children temporarily in our care," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in Saturday's statement. "Yet, as I have said many times, a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child."

The Biden administration has been rolling back various immigration measures implemented by former President Donald Trump, including terminating a 2018 agreement between DHS and HHS that encouraged child welfare officers to share personal information about potential sponsors for unaccompanied children with immigration enforcement agents.

At the same time, the administration is grappling with surging numbers of migrants arriving at the border, especially children without guardians.

Mayorkas said addressing the needs of unaccompanied children is made more challenging because of the ongoing public health crisis.

He added: "As a result of the public health imperative, adults and accompanied children are subject to COVID-19 related travel restrictions and are returned to Mexico under the statutory authority of the CDC."

Press secretary Jen Psaki has said the White House is working to increase the number of HHS facilities where children can be housed that follow CDC guidelines.

Political fault lines

As with nearly everything in Washington, D.C., reaction to the situation at the southern border falls along political fault lines.

House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California has laid blame at the feet of the Biden administration and plans to lead a delegation of 12 Republican lawmakers to visit the border on Monday.

"You can't help but notice that the administration changes, and there's a surge," Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., told Fox News Sunday.

It's not the first time. Due to previous surges of unaccompanied children at the border, the federal government declared humanitarian crises in 2014 under former President Barack Obama and in 2018-'19 under Trump.

Democrats argue the latest surge in migrants is a result of failed policies under the Trump administration.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, told CNN's State of the Union on Sunday that the influx of migrants is "an enormous challenge and it's unacceptable."

"We also, I think, need to acknowledge that the flow of humanity arriving at our front door never stopped," she said. "The Donald Trump administration didn't stop them and what we are seeing today is the consequence of four years of dismantling every system in place to address this with humanity and compassion."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she's "pleased" with the Biden administration's decision to send FEMA to the border.

"This is a humanitarian challenge to all of us," she said Sunday on ABC's This Week. "What the administration has inherited is a broken system at the border and they are working to correct that in the children's interest."

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Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.