Packing in the Migrant Kids, Even When Beds Are Running Short

(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services via AP)

An undated photo released by HHS of the inside of the Tornillo, Texas, facility.

Shelters designated for migrant children in government custody are projected to reach maximum operational capacity this week, according to an internal report from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a division of the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), which The American Prospect has obtained.

The report, which was circulated among office staff at the end of August, projects that 90 percent of the agency’s 14,000 beds, including unfunded reserve beds, will be filled this week. The office’s maximum capacity target (85 percent of beds) has already been surpassed, according to the report. ORR currently has just short of 1,100 available funded beds.

Even after federal officials reunited more than 2,000 separated immigrant children with their parents in July, the number of children in shelters remains staggeringly high. There are currently more than 12,300 children in ORR care—an almost 10 percent increase from the end of July. That’s a 300 percent increase from a year ago, when only about 4,000 children were in ORR shelters, according to a House Democratic aide.

While the Trump administration continues to ramp up immigration enforcement, it has also erected a number of bureaucratic hurdles for ORR to find a home for detained children, including requiring fingerprints from potential sponsors, which are shared with the Department of Homeland Security.

The result is a precipitous drop in the number of children released from shelters. The current discharge rate, which is derived from the number of children being referred to the office and the number being released, is 0.6 percent—less than one child being discharged on average for every 100 detained. For comparison, a 0.5 percent discharge rate would mean that for every 100 detained children, ORR is only releasing on average one child every other day.  

Just one year ago, the office’s discharge rate was 1.6 percent. According to a former HHS official, the rate was about 2.4 percent before Trump took office.

The amount of time children are kept in shelters before being released has grown significantly longer under this administration. Two years ago, the average length of stay in a shelter was 34 days. In 2017, that number went up to 41 days and, as of the end of this April, it’s shot up to 57 days.

But the 0.6 percent discharge rate included in the recent ORR report suggests that the current average length of stay is far longer than 57 days.

ORR sets its maximum operational capacity at 90 percent to allow time to respond to bed shortages and create a buffer against inevitable logistical challenges. It’s not possible to precisely anticipate release dates for every child, and many shelters are not fully flexible in their ability to shelter children across age groups and genders. Moreover, permanent shelters generally are prohibited from taking children if their number exceeds the shelter’s operational capacity under their state licensing agreements.

“If you have a discharge rate that low, and kids keep arriving in high numbers, you can’t build shelters fast enough,” says Maria Cancian, a former deputy assistant secretary at HHS.

Running over maximum operational capacity presents a significant quality-of-care hazard for detained children. HHS claims that it currently operates a network of more than 100 shelters in 17 states.

If and when ORR runs out of beds in standard shelters, the Trump administration will be forced to choose between opening temporary shelters on federal property or risk creating a backlog of children in the care of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Under the Flores agreement, a 1997 legal settlement, migrant children picked up by border agents are generally required to be directed to HHS within 72 hours and to be placed in the least-restrictive setting possible. If no shelter space is available, however, children could be forced to remain in large CBP warehouses, which recently received intense scrutiny for their inhospitable conditions and use of cages to house the children who were separated from their parents at their border.

CBP agents aren’t trauma-informed welfare workers that one might find at a standard shelter. They’re law enforcement officers. It’s simply not the agency’s mission to look after children.

“Horrendous crowding can occur in these [CBP] facilities,” says Mark Greenberg, former head of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which oversees ORR. “It would be deeply troubling if a backlog were to happen now.”

Greenberg presided over ACF during the unaccompanied minor crisis in 2014, which caught the Obama administration unprepared and resulted in many children ending up in CBP care longer than allowed under Flores. The government responded to the crisis by temporarily contracting with so-called influx shelters near the border, where children would be held while waiting to be transferred to HHS.

But temporary shelters, while an upgrade from CBP facilities, are far from a perfect solution.

Temporary shelters are opened quickly to meet overflows of detained children and must have the ability to close at a moment’s notice. As a result, there’s little time to properly train staff tasked with caring for children, and daily operations can run up to $750 per child per day—triple the cost of standard shelters.

Unlike standard shelter beds used year-round, temporary shelters are operated on federal property and are not subject to the state monitoring under licensing agreements that allow state officials to conduct inspections of detention conditions and child welfare. And even with these licensing agreements in place, reports of abuse at standard shelters continue to surface.

“Under the past administration, we turned to influx shelters following a dramatic unexpected increase in the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border,” says Greenberg. “Here, they’ve turned to them of their own choice. First, by deciding to use the program for family separations, and now through policies that appear to be slowing discharges at ORR.”

The government currently has two influx shelters up and running, one in Homestead, Florida, and the other in Tornillo, Texas. The Tornillo tent shelter was originally scheduled to close on July 13, but ORR twice extended its contract with the nonprofit running the shelter. Tornillo is, for the moment, slated to close on September 13.

HHS has yet to formally request additional funding for shelter space, according to a House Democratic aide.

ACF did not respond to a request for comment on the recent ORR report. It’s not clear whether ACF or ORR anticipate any changes in policy or procedure to improve the discharge rate. ACF did not respond to the Prospect’s questions about provisions being made to increase the number of reserve beds.

A CBP backlog would set the stage for legal challenge from immigrant advocacy groups to enforce the Flores settlement prohibiting children from being in CBP care for more than three days.

It would not be the first time the Trump administration has been at odds with Flores. The federal court ruling against Trump’s family-separation policy was predicated on the settlement. Following the decision, the White House, along with congressional Republicans, have moved to amend Flores to allow the government more leeway in detaining children for extended periods of time.

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