Surprising Takeaways in AP Article on Child Migrant Detention

Taxpayer-funded airline tickets for children flying alone, dangerous detention allegations, voluntary family separation, and truncated vetting times

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 14, 2021

In a May 12 post, I referenced an AP article on complaints about detention facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for unaccompanied alien children (UACs) apprehended by CBP at the Southwest border. That May 11 AP article jumps around a lot (and fails to address some key questions), but there are also some surprising takeaways therein.

First, as I noted in that earlier post, there were a lot of unaccompanied children (16,933) who were taken into Border Patrol custody in April — the second-highest monthly total for any month in which Border Patrol keeps records (back to October 2009). In first place was March (18,733), so the Biden administration should not be taking any victory laps over the decline.

In fact, between February and April, Border Patrol has apprehended almost 45,000 UACs and, by law, CBP is supposed to turn those children over in 72 hours to HHS for placement in shelters that the department runs or has contracts for.

HHS has about 13,700 permanent shelter beds for children, at a cost of $290 per day for each. As the number of UACs surged, however, and due to pandemic limits on bed space, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had to step in to help HHS set up temporary housing for the overflow (at a cost of $755 per bed, daily).

In the interim, those children languished in makeshift CBP facilities, which were not really a good option. In March, CBP had an average of 4,109 children in its custody for an average of 115 hours apiece, well in excess of the legal standard, and the pictures that were secreted out of those facilities were not pretty.

With the establishment of those temporary HHS shelters, however, DHS is patting itself on the back by publishing new pictures, under the header “DHS Action on the Southwest Border Yields Results”, of CBP facilities that are largely empty.

CBP is also lauding the fact that it was holding only 455 children as of May 11, and that children are spending, on average, just 28 hours in the agency’s custody.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) contends, however, that those pictures only tell part of the story, accusing the Biden administration of playing a “shell game” by moving those children from the now largely vacant CBP housing into similar HHS shelters.

Those HHS “Emergency Intake Sites” (EIS) are the main, but not sole, focus of the AP article. The outlet talks about 21,000 children held in “an opaque network of some 200 facilities” spanning “two dozen states”, including “five shelters with more than 1,000 children packed inside”.

According to AP, half of those migrant children are in shelters holding more than 1,000, and in excess of 17,650 UACs “are in facilities with 100 or more children”.

Some of those facilities are permanent state-licensed HHS shelters (it has more than 100 of those in 17 states), but some, like the one at Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas (which held 4,500 children as of May 10), are EISs.

Ft. Bliss EIS is one of “about a dozen unlicensed emergency facilities inside military installations, stadiums and convention centers that”, according to AP, “skirt state regulations and don’t require traditional legal oversight.”

The AP story explains that HHS “has received reports of abuse that resulted in a handful of contract staffers being dismissed from working at the emergency sites this year”, and contends that children inside those emergency sites “aren’t guaranteed access to education, recreational opportunities or legal counsel”.

AP notes that HHS has shared photographs from those facilities, as well as daily counts on the number of children in its custody.

It does not appear, though, that it has let reporters inside to check out conditions for themselves, at least not in the regular course of business, because that outlet notes: “The Biden administration has allowed very limited access to news media once children are brought into facilities, citing the coronavirus pandemic and privacy restrictions.”

All of that is problematic, and raises concerns about both government transparency and the welfare of those children.

Worse are the contentions of Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive director of the nonprofit “Every. Last. One.”, who asserts “Children are coming out sick, with COVID, [and] infested with lice.” If true, that is not a concern — it’s a problem, and an underreported one, at that.

Then, there is AP’s depiction of how exactly those children in HHS custody are released to “sponsors”.

I explained in an April 19 post that the majority of unaccompanied children (the ones who are not Mexican or Canadian nationals) are encouraged by a 2008 law to enter illegally, because it all but mandates their release by HHS to “sponsors” in the United States. In 90 percent of cases, those sponsors are relatives, and in 40 percent, the children’s own parents, according to recent reports.

In the past, the overwhelming majority of those sponsors have themselves been in the United States illegally, and there is no reason to believe that this has changed recently.

AP explains that while it took an average of four months for HHS to place UACs with sponsors last fall, that period has now been trimmed down to “less than a month this spring”.

That fact passes in the article with no comment, but as I explained in a May 6 post, at least one recent report suggests that the reason why that process has been truncated is because HHS is not performing full background checks on sponsors who are parents, and “has temporarily suspended those checks for other adults living in the household.”

When the department took such shortcuts in the past, children were released to unfit sponsors (and worse), as a January 2016 Senate subcommittee report on the process revealed. AP must know about this, because it detailed some pretty bad cases itself in an “Investigation” piece published the same month that report was released.

Those shortcuts, and their inevitable consequences, are a problem, too, but one that AP (this time) lets pass.

As interesting, however, is the human-interest side of that story, which focuses on “Jose, a father who fled El Salvador after his village was targeted in a massacre” and who “requested asylum in the U.S. four years ago”.

It does not appear that Jose has yet received asylum, however (a point that AP fails to raise), but in any event, he reportedly “had hoped to welcome his wife and 8-year-old daughter to Southern California this year”.

That did not happen, though. You have to read between the lines to get the full gist, but apparently Jose was hoping “to welcome his wife and 8-year-old daughter to Southern California” after they entered the United States illegally.

When a facially objective U.S. news outlet normalizes illegality, it is easy to understand why so many foreign nationals are hiring smugglers to come here.

The duo were unsuccessful in this attempt, as they were “were turned around at the border in March and expelled to Mexico”. AP continues: “The little girl crossed again by herself and was placed in the government shelter in Brownsville, Texas, on April 6.”

What is unsaid in that sentence is much more important than what is. It is possible, I guess, that an adolescent could decide to pull away or sneak off from her mother and make a break for the border. But it is a lot more likely that the mother, Jose, or both decided to have her enter illegally.

That effort would be so reckless and foolhardy that you would expect to see a news article chastising the parents who decided that it was a good idea to begin with. In this instance, though, it passes without explanation or comment.

That said, given the fact that the Biden administration continues to use Trump-era orders from the CDC issued in response to the pandemic under Title 42 of the U.S. Code to expel other migrants (including a few in family units like Jose’s wife and daughter), but is not expelling unaccompanied children under Title 42, it is inviting such parental choices.

In fact, AP reports, “some parents are sending their kids across the border by themselves” in response to the administration’s Title 42 exception for unaccompanied children.

In other words, a president who rode to the White House railing against what he deemed “family separation” under the Trump administration (Biden referred to it as “a moral failing and a national shame” on the campaign trail), is, through his policies, promoting it.

Back to Jose. After his daughter entered the United States on April 6, apparently he had to traverse a government maze to locate her. But then:

“Finally they told me I had to pay $1,300 to cover her airplane ticket and if I didn’t pay, I would have to wait a month more, and I was so anxious.”

For nearly three weeks, his daughter was held inside the Brownsville facility before finally being released to him in late April after an advocacy organization intervened to get the government to foot the bill for her airfare, as is required by the agency.

Again, there are a lot of facts that are omitted or left unsaid in that passage.

But it is difficult to believe that Jose did not pay the smuggler who attempted to bring his wife and daughter to Southern California. If so, that fee would have run thousands of dollars, calling into question why he could not buy a $1,300 plane ticket for his daughter, or better yet, get the girl himself.

In any event, AP never really considers the implications of an eight-year-old girl flying more than 1,000 miles in a strange country by herself, or how exactly she was able to get on an airliner without a parent and without documentation. Maybe in a follow-up.

That said, return to the last clause in the excerpt “as required by the agency”. Does that mean that the federal government is “required” to pay for plane tickets to deliver every child who enters illegally to his or her parents? That is an invitation for those parents to have their children smuggled to this country illegally — and makes you, as a taxpayer, a smuggling co-conspirator.

What exactly is this requirement, and how does it apply? No idea — but I would like to find out.

It’s a long article, and there are parts that I have omitted. That said, a single report that describes taxpayer-funded tickets for children to fly alone, dangerous detention allegations, voluntary family separations, and truncated vetting times is one that is worth a read — if you care about kids or the border.