WASHINGTON — U.S. officials will close four emergency facilities set up to house record numbers of migrant children crossing the Mexican border alone but cautioned Tuesday that minors were still arriving.
The Department of Health and Human Services will shut two facilities in Texas and two at convention centers in California by early August, Aurora Miranda-Maese, juvenile coordinator for the agency's office of refugee resettlement, said during a court hearing about custody conditions for migrant children.
Four of the large-scale shelters will remain open, including one that has faced criticism from immigrant advocates at Fort Bliss Army Base in El Paso, Texas, she said. Others are in Albion, Michigan; Pecos, Texas; and Pomona, California, she said.
U.S. officials have reported a recent drop in the number of children held in emergency facilities, including a more than 40% decline at Fort Bliss since mid-June. Miranda-Maese said more children are being released to relatives in the U.S. or being sent to state-licensed shelters, which have a higher standard of care.
The emergency sites were set up by the Biden administration this spring to handle a rise in the number of children arriving on the southern border alone, many fleeing violence in Central America and seeking to reunite with relatives in the United States.
Henry A. Moak Jr., juvenile coordinator for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said it isn't clear whether that's about to change despite the summer heat.
“It appears the numbers are still going up,” he told the court. “I don’t know if the hot weather is going to deter that at all.”
Health and Human Services cares for the children until they can be sent to live with relatives in the United States. The agency has about 15,000 children in its care, and fewer than 3,000 in emergency facilities, Miranda-Maese said. But she noted that the number of children received from border authorities has increased in the past week.
“That's concerning because this is definitely a very difficult and challenging time to be crossing the border,” she said.
Miranda-Maese recognized the challenges at Fort Bliss and said the facility was being reconfigured to a more child-friendly pod system with single cots instead of doubles. She said officials also are working to improve the system to screen relatives more quickly so children can go live with them.
Her comments came during a hearing in a federal court in Los Angeles that oversees a longstanding settlement governing custody conditions for immigrant children.
In recent filings to the court, more than a dozen children described their desperation to get out of the emergency facilities. In one account, a teenage girl said she had been at Fort Bliss for nearly 60 days and could hardly sleep at night because the lights were always on and she resorted to eating only popsicles and juice because the food was foul.
Carlos Holguin, an attorney for the children, said advocates were concerned that well-run facilities like one at the Long Beach Convention Center were being shut down while Fort Bliss will remain open. He also said it wasn't clear which children were sent to state-licensed shelters, which are governed by different standards, and which are sent to the emergency sites.
Officials are expected to file updates to the court in July. Another hearing is scheduled for August.