Migrant children who come into the U.S. without family are staying longer in crowded shelters as authorities struggle to handle their growing numbers and to screen potential sponsors, according to government data and advocates.
The average stay for unaccompanied minors who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, most illegally, is now 59 days. That is up from 56 in June and 41 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is caring for about 13,000 newly arrived immigrant children.
Some critics are concerned about the growing length of time young immigrants are held by the government and suggest that the safety concerns associated with releasing kids to U.S.-based sponsors, typically family members, can be more quickly addressed.
The Trump administration has said the increased length of stay is a result of both the large number of kids passing through the shelters and the increased scrutiny given to potential sponsors to ensure children are placed in safe environments.
“It is our intention to get kids into the hands of sponsors as quickly and safely as possible,” said Mark Weber, a Health and Human Services spokesman.
Across the country, children are being held in shelters that range from a cavernous former Walmart to smaller group homes to a tent city.
Mr. Weber said the system set up to care for and place unaccompanied immigrant children with sponsors in the U.S. has been overwhelmed by the arrival of tens of thousands of child immigrants in the past year. The administration’s short-lived family-separation policy also taxed the system, with an influx of more than 2,600 immigrant kids separated from their parents, he added.
President Trump last week again advocated for the separation policy, saying the fear of losing their children would deter some people from coming. No policy changes have been announced.
During the 11 months from October 2017, the start of the federal fiscal year, through August, more than 45,700 children were caught crossing the Mexican border illegally, up 19% from the previous year. Most of those children have applied for or are expected to apply for asylum, a complicated legal process that can take years to complete.
The number is down from a peak of more than 68,000 in 2014, when the federal government was caught off guard by a sudden flood of children. Obama administration officials declared the situation a humanitarian crisis.
Some children are being detained much longer than average. Golden McCarthy, director of the Florence Project’s children’s program, which offers legal services to immigrant children, said her group has seen a number of young clients spending “four or five months” in detention.
“The process seems to be long for some sponsors to go through, which is forcing our clients to stay in detention,” she said.
The only contact children have with family members is by phone during their extended stays in these detention facilities.
One such location is a collection of tents in the desert in West Texas, about 40 miles southeast of El Paso, that the government deems a “temporary emergency influx shelter.” Opened in June with the intention of housing a few hundred children for about a month, it now houses 1,500 teenagers, and officials said they expect to keep it open until at least December.
The teens there spend their days shuffling between school classes, arts and crafts, and recreation time on soccer fields. They live in insulated, air-conditioned tents, with boys and girls on different sides of the compound.
It costs about $750 a day per child to keep children in such emergency shelters, according to government data. The average permanent shelter spends about $250 a day per child.
Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services started requiring background checks not only on potential sponsors but also on other adults living in a sponsor’s house before a child immigrant could be released. The agency also started sharing that information with the Department of Homeland Security.
Forty people living in the U.S. illegally were arrested after being identified during such checks this year through September, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said during a congressional hearing last month.
Fear of such arrests has made some would-be sponsors wary of coming forward, or led them to take extra time to identify willing and legal family members to volunteer, said Jennifer Podkul, policy director for the legal aid group Kids In Need of Defense.
“Family members are scrambling to find who can be the sponsor,” said Ms. Podkul.
Mr. Weber disputed that the information-sharing policy has impacted Health and Human Services’ ability to find sponsors.
“What I do know is that sponsors are showing up,” he said, adding that roughly 85% of sponsors are parents or close relatives.
Despite the delays, Mr. Weber said more unaccompanied immigrant kids have recently left government care than entered. On one day during the first week in October, he said, about 143 kids were referred to Health and Human Services by the U.S. Border Patrol and about 169 were released to sponsors.