The Biden administration is scrapping plans to house “tender age” migrant children at a military base in the Texas desert amid concerns about subpar conditions and prolonged stays there, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra confirmed to CBS News on Monday.
As of May 13, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was planning to house up to 5,000 migrant children under the age of 12 at the Fort Bliss Army base, one of 13 sites the Biden administration has set to house unaccompanied minors, according to internal government documents obtained by CBS News.
During a call with reporters on Monday, however, Becerra said his department, which is charged with caring for unaccompanied children until they can be released to family members in the U.S., decided to reverse course.
“We do not intend to house tender age children — children under the age of 12 — at the Fort Bliss facility,” Becerra said. “We only have kids who are 12 to 17 at the Fort Bliss facility.”
Advocates and some lawmakers, including Democratic Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, had expressed concern about placing young children at Fort Bliss, which was holding 4,500 teenage boys and girls as of Friday.
“It is shocking that the government ever contemplated sending young children to a setting that fails to meet rudimentary child welfare standards,” Neha Desai, a National Center for Youth Law attorney who represents migrant children in a federal court case, told CBS News. “It is certainly a relief to know that they are no longer considering warehousing these very young children on a military base where they’d be confined in enormous tents with thousands of other children.”
The sprawling makeshift shelter at Fort Bliss — which can now house up to 10,000 children inside large tents — has come under withering criticism from advocates in recent days. Unlike traditional HHS shelters, the base and other emergency housing facilities set up in convention centers and work camps are not licensed by state authorities to care for minors.
Desai and other lawyers who have interviewed minors housed at the Army base said the children reported not having sufficient access to showers, clean clothes and case managers, the officials who help them reunite with sponsors in the U.S., typically parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
Becerra, who toured Fort Bliss over the weekend, said the children housed there are being offered adequate services.
“We provide them with the clothing and the sanitary materials that they need,” he added. “I saw no shortage. In fact, as I said, I saw a warehouse with the articles that they would need.”
Escobar, the El Paso congresswoman, and lawyers have also raised concerns about the mental health of children at Fort Bliss, particularly those who have been held there the longest. During interviews with lawyers, migrant girls at the base reported talk of self-harm among other children.
Asked about these concerns, Becerra said children at Fort Bliss are receiving medical checks, good meals and access to behavioral health specialists.
“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,” he added.
Still, Becerra recognized issues with the children’s mental health, saying HHS is “doing everything we can while they’re temporarily in our care to make sure we help address that as best we can.”
“If I were a child and I was without my parent, without my family, in a foreign country, not being able to speak the language, not knowing what will happen to me, I would feel stressed as well,” he said.
According to data shared with CBS News, nearly 600 children had been held at Fort Bliss for 40 days or longer as of earlier this month. Escobar said some minors had been housed there for 48 days as of Friday, when she toured the base.
Becerra said his department is striving to release children as quickly as possible but noted the process is sometimes delayed by vetting procedures designed to ensure minors are not placed with sponsors who could harm them, such as traffickers.
“We’re not going to let that happen,” Becerra said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we safely discharge a child into the hands of a responsible custodian. For some that takes longer than for others.”
Last week, HHS said it has placed nearly 31,000 of the 49,000 migrant children it has received since President Biden took office with family members and sponsors in the U.S.
Becerra said the emergency makeshift shelters are meant to be temporary and should not be housing children for “a long time.” But he noted they were necessary to get unaccompanied children out ill-suited Border Patrol facilities, which were acutely overcrowded earlier this spring.
While HHS has, on paper, between 13,000 and 14,000 traditional shelter beds for unaccompanied children, Becerra said only about 9,000 are currently in use because of COVID-19 protocols and staffing issues.
The rest of the 19,000 unaccompanied minors currently in HHS care are being housed at the makeshift shelters, he added.
“We have exhausted the available beds at most of these licensed facilities and that’s what we’ve had to open up these emergency intake sites,” Becerra said.