Migrant Children Moved To Emergency Shelters; Challenges Remain Health and Human Services has opened a dozen emergency influx shelters for unaccompanied migrant children, easing a bottleneck at the border. But the Biden administration still faces big challenges.

Fewer Migrant Children Held In Border Detention Facilities, But Challenges Remain

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Biden administration has been scrambling to care for hundreds of migrant children and teenagers crossing the southern border alone every day. The federal government has opened a dozen emergency influx shelters and moved thousands of children out of jail-like Border Patrol holding cells that have stoked public outrage. Still, the administration faces big challenges, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Earlier this week, roughly 100 unaccompanied migrant children arrived at their temporary home - rustic cottages near a private lake in southern Michigan.

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ELIZABETH CAREY: We are excited to be able to create those beautiful spaces and a place for healing for some of those children.

ROSE: Elizabeth Carey is the CEO of Starr Commonwealth, a non-profit with a long history of working with at-risk kids on its campus in Albion, Mich. She explained in a video statement that the organization is hosting a temporary influx shelter for migrants between the ages of 5 and 17.

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CAREY: When asked by our federal government if we could help and provide a safe refuge and haven for those children, we enthusiastically said yes.

ROSE: Health and Human Services is adding emergency influx shelters anywhere it can, from abandoned camps for oil workers and big-city convention centers in Texas and California to smaller facilities far from the border in Michigan and Pennsylvania. All told, HHS has added temporary facilities with the potential capacity to house more than 16,000 children until they can be placed in long-term shelters or with sponsors or relatives living in the U.S. But the agency still has some thorny problems to solve, starting with hiring enough staff to run these enormous emergency shelters.

MARK GREENBERG: That is a big part of the challenge they have been facing.

ROSE: Mark Greenberg used to lead the branch of HHS that runs the shelters. He's now with the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute.

GREENBERG: It can be very, very difficult to get adequate, trained, appropriate staff quickly.

ROSE: Another part of the challenge is political. HHS asked states if there's any space in their foster care systems for the migrant children. That prompted an emphatic no from the governors of South Carolina, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. And Republican governors along the border say the Biden administration invited the recent influx of children by lifting Trump-era restrictions. Texas Governor Greg Abbott also said last week that state officials received complaints about an emergency shelter in San Antonio, including allegations of child sexual assault.

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GREG ABBOTT: In short, this facility is a health and safety nightmare. The Biden administration must immediately shut down this facility.

ROSE: HHS says it thoroughly investigates all allegations of abuse. And Democrats criticize Abbott for politicizing the plight of migrant children. They counter, it was the Trump administration that left HHS unprepared by allowing the long-term shelter system to shrink last year when most migrants, including children, were turned back because of the pandemic. Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington says the Biden administration is doing the best it can under the circumstances.

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: Unlike the Trump administration, they're not sending kids back. They're not putting kids in cages. They are trying to process them through quickly.

ROSE: But Jayapal and other progressives don't like big influx shelters either because emergency facilities are not required to meet state standards for care. Jayapal and other Democratic lawmakers this week urged HHS to come up with a better long-term plan so this doesn't happen again.

JAYAPAL: We need to make sure we're addressing some of the long-standing issues around quality of conditions for these kids so that we eliminate the need for influx facilities in the future.

ROSE: The number of unaccompanied children crossing the border has dropped somewhat after a record-breaking March, and fewer children are being held in crowded tents and holding cells near the border. But it's too early to say if this is the beginning of a downward trend or just a temporary dip. Joel Rose, NPR News.

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