HHS secretary dismisses reports of unsanitary conditions, distressed migrant kids at massive emergency shelter

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra assured reporters this week that the Biden administration is doing everything it can to provide quality care to the more than 18,000 unaccompanied migrant children currently in its custody — despite recent reports to the contrary.

“We are caring for children responsibly,” Becerra said during a Monday press call. “We do everything we can to make sure these children are provided with the kind of care that is required not just by law but by our moral obligation to do this the right way.”

Becerra’s comments come amid reports of concerning conditions at some of the large-scale facilities that the Biden administration converted into emergency shelters earlier this spring, in response to the influx of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the southern border.

Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services, answers questions during his Senate Finance Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., February 24, 2021. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra at his Senate Finance Committee nomination hearing in February. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)

So far, journalists have not been given access to these sites. But a small number of attorneys have been able to visit and interview children at the facilities, and they told Yahoo News and other media outlets that they are especially concerned about the conditions at Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army base in El Paso, Texas, where, as of last week, more than 4,500 children ages 12 and up were being housed in massive, soft-sided tents.

Unlike at permanent licensed shelters, and some emergency facilities, children housed at Fort Bliss do not receive educational services. And though they do have access to outdoor recreation, attorneys who’ve visited the makeshift shelter say the children there spend a majority of their time sleeping on, or hanging around, the flimsy bunk cots that fill the enormous tents, each of which houses about 900 to 1,000 children. Lawyers described a foul smell inside the tents and noted that a number of children reported not receiving clean clothes for several days.

Above all, attorneys said they were most concerned about the psychological and emotional toll that such conditions appeared to be having on children who’d been at Fort Bliss for prolonged periods of time.

An entrance to Fort Bliss is shown as reports indicate the military will begin to construct temporary housing for migrants on June 25, 2018 in Fort Bliss, Texas.  (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
An entrance to Fort Bliss in Texas. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Becerra, who’d recently returned from a visit to the El Paso facility, was quick to dismiss these concerns during Monday’s press call. He said he “saw no sign” that children were being deprived of fresh clothing, and suggested that any mental health issues displayed by children at Fort Bliss were the result of trauma experienced prior to being in HHS care.

“I doubt that any of the children in these facilities would tell any one of us that what they’re experiencing now is anywhere near as traumatic as what they experienced trying to get here,” Becerra said. While he acknowledged that it is likely very stressful for a child to be alone in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language and don’t know what will happen to them, Becerra insisted that HHS is “doing everything we can while they’re temporarily in our care to make sure we help address that as best we can.”

“Having walked through these facilities … I’d love to see the kids that folks are saying are having traumatic experiences at any of these sites,” he added.

Melissa Adamson is an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, which monitors the conditions in which migrant children are detained in the U.S. as part of a landmark settlement in an ongoing federal court case. As legal counsel for migrant children in that case, Adamson and her colleagues are among the few people who’ve been able to interview minors at the emergency facilities HHS has opened in recent months.

In response to Becerra’s comments, Adamson told Yahoo News in an email that “decades of child welfare research have established that large-scale congregate facilities are harmful to children’s health and welfare.”

“The fact that unaccompanied children likely experienced trauma before arriving in the United States does not excuse the additional harm that is being inflicted on them by prolonged stays in massive emergency intake sites,” she said.

Young minors lie inside a pod at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by the US Customs and Border Protection, (CBP), in Donna, Texas on March 30, 2021. (Dario Lopez-Mills/AFP via Getty Images)
Minors in March inside the Department of Homeland Security holding facility in Donna, Texas, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley. (Dario Lopez-Mills/AFP via Getty Images)

HHS did not respond to a request for the average time that children are spending at Fort Bliss before being released to a parent or sponsor, but those familiar with the situation said the facility’s lack of adequate case management staff has contributed to prolonged stays for many children housed there. One attorney who visited Fort Bliss earlier this month told Yahoo News that they’d met with multiple children who’d been there for close to 30 days and had yet to meet with a case manager.

Following Becerra’s call with reporters on Monday, Reason magazine reported that it had obtained secret recordings in which officials and federal staff at the Fort Bliss shelter acknowledged unsanitary conditions, cases of inappropriate contact between shelter staff and minors, and legitimate complaints made by children that their requests for medical care had been ignored.

The Biden administration began opening up emergency intake sites like the one at Fort Bliss in late March, as the numbers of migrant children arriving at the border reached record highs. Described by one HHS official as “short-term stopgaps,” the facilities were meant to reduce the amount of time children were spending in overcrowded Border Patrol stations, while officials worked to increase bed capacity within the federal refugee office’s network of permanent, state-licensed childcare facilities.

In a photo taken on March 27, 2021 unaccompanied Guatemalan child, Oscar (12), who arrived illegally across the Rio Grande river from Mexico, stands after disembarking from a boat near the US border city of Roma, Texas. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)
Oscar, 12, who crossed the Rio Grande in March unaccompanied, is seen after disembarking from a boat near Roma, Texas. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

The consensus among advocates and officials was that even the most bare-bones facility run by HHS would be a better environment for vulnerable migrant children than the jail-like settings at Customs and Border Protection holding centers, or even worse, dangerous Mexican border towns. Still, some advocates expressed concerns about the kinds of reduced hiring standards HHS seemed to be using in order to get these new facilities up and running so quickly, and what kind of services the sites would provide.

Among those who raised concerns early on about the reduced standards of care at these new emergency sites was Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and a former Obama administration official who served in HHS’s Administration for Children and Families division. Greenberg said that while the emergency facilities have succeeded in getting children out of CBP holding facilities, the Biden administration must now address the urgent concerns about the health and safety of children at these sites.

“But even if that’s done, the longer children stay there, the greater the risks of depression and other serious mental health concerns,” he said. “The administration needs to rapidly develop better alternatives, especially for children who can’t be quickly and safely released.”

Unaccompanied minors are grouped apart from families waiting to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border on April 10, 2021 in La Joya, Texas. A surge of immigrants crossing into the United States, including record numbers of children, continues along the southern border. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Unaccompanied minors are grouped apart from families waiting to be processed by Border Patrol agents in La Joya, Texas, in April. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Nearly two months after the administration started sending kids from the border to these new emergency facilities, the number of unaccompanied minors in Customs and Border Protection custody has dropped from more than 5,000 to 452, according to the most recent government data, released Wednesday.

“Today, I think the average amount of time a child is spending in CBP custody is less than one day,” Becerra said, noting that the Fort Bliss site, the largest of these temporary shelters, has played a key role in achieving this goal. “We’ve made tremendous progress in being able to care for all the kids that are coming into our custody from Customs and Border Patrol ... and we’re getting the job done.”

But recent reports of the conditions at Fort Bliss, as well as a number of other emergency intake facilities, seem to validate advocates’ biggest fears about the dangers of warehousing children by the hundreds, or thousands, without educational programs or other substantial services for anything more than a few days. Earlier this month, children waiting to reunite with relatives or sponsors were reportedly forced to spend days inside a parked bus outside a Dallas convention center that has been serving as a temporary shelter for roughly 2,000 migrant teenage boys. Advocates and former employees at the Dallas site have also expressed concerns about depression and fights among the boys in custody there, who they said were deprived of sunlight and fresh air, rarely allowed to call their families and provided with chaotic and confusing case management.

The Dallas shelter is set to close when its lease expires at the end of this month, as is another emergency site in San Antonio. Two of the other intake sites that opened this spring, including one in Houston that housed over 100 teen girls, were quickly shuttered for failing to provide adequate living conditions.

Becerra indicated that HHS is not planning to shut down the rest of the emergency intake sites anytime soon. Fort Bliss is even reportedly expanding its potential capacity from 5,000 to 10,000.

“To the degree we no longer find licensed facilities available, we will have emergency intake facilities available,” he said.

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