Top aides to President Joe Biden are ramping up pressure on the agency that shelters thousands of unaccompanied migrant children, voicing frustration that kids are not being released quickly enough from detention, three US officials said.
In daily calls with representatives from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other agencies, White House officials have demanded HHS speed up releases from its overloaded shelter system to free up space for children packed into crowded border patrol stations, the officials said. HHS is in charge of housing the migrant children and vetting potential US sponsors, often parents and close relatives, who seek to take them in.
The pressure on HHS comes as the administration is scrambling to open shelters to house children - mostly from Central America - who are crossing the border in record numbers, deepening a humanitarian crisis for Biden that is one of his first major tests in office.
The main White House aides exerting pressure on HHS are Susan Rice, Biden's domestic policy adviser and a powerful voice within the administration, and Amy Pope, a senior adviser for migration hired last month to help deal with the escalating situation at the southern border, said two of the three officials. All were familiar with the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Rice, in particular, has pressed HHS staffers on what she sees as an unacceptably slow pace of releases of children to sponsors, the three officials said. While the number of children in HHS custody has grown by more than 65% between the end of March and mid-April, reaching more than 19,000, the number released from shelters has stayed around 300 per day, according to a Reuters analysis of government data.
"Everyone's working around the clock, and there's a big morale issue" at HHS, said one of the three officials. "These are people who signed up to help kids."
The tensions within the administration have not previously been reported in detail. They are emerging as US Customs and Border Protection expects to arrest more unaccompanied children this year than in any year since record-keeping began in 2010, according to an internal US government estimate reviewed by Reuters.
Mark Weber, an HHS spokesman, said government agencies were working together with the common goal of trying to get children out of crowded border patrol stations. But he conceded that Zoom and phone calls can get heated.
"It's tense," Weber said in an interview. "But it's a healthy tension with high-powered folks aligned around the mission of making sure these kids are well-taken care of."
White House spokesman Vedant Patel said the pace of moving children out of border stations and into HHS shelters was "unacceptable," but added that "the entire federal government is working tirelessly to add capacity and take steps to swiftly unite unaccompanied minors with vetted relatives."
Rushing to open shelters
The Biden administration has been hurrying to open up more than a dozen emergency shelters, including in convention centers and on military bases, to help house migrant children who arrive at the US-Mexico border without a parent or legal guardian.
The new president is under fire from migrant advocacy groups and some of his own Democratic Party allies for not releasing the children more quickly from shelters. Republicans blame him for the rising numbers, saying he was too hasty in rolling back former President Donald Trump's restrictive immigration policies.
Biden's administration has promised a more humane approach to immigration and pledged to reverse many of Trump's policies. But those goals have collided with a jump in apprehensions at the southwest border.
The backlog in the number of children waiting to be released to sponsors is partly due to logistical hurdles, migrant advocates said, including difficulties of staffing up shelters quickly; providing guidance to an unwieldy bureaucracy of contractor-run sites; and reaching potential sponsors by phone.
But the slow pace is to some extent deliberate.
HHS officials worry that speeding up the vetting process too much could lead children to be released into unsafe situations, according to two of the three Biden administration officials. In a notorious case in 2014, HHS released at least six children to traffickers who forced them to work on an Ohio egg farm, according to court documents.
"There's a balance of timeliness and safety," said one of the three officials who is critical of the White House approach. "We can't just release kids without doing checks."
Rice has "pressed consistently" for HHS to speed up its releases of children to make space in children's shelters, said another of the three officials familiar with the matter. HHS efforts on that front have been inadequate, the person said, but are now improving.
HHS defenders say the criticism in meeting after meeting where HHS "is getting yelled at" is taking a toll on the staff.
In support of Rice's approach, one of the three officials said the government was in "crisis response mode" and that Rice was simply "trying to marshal people into action."
"It's like appearing before a really tough judge in a courtroom," the official said of Rice. "You don't go in with excuses, you go in with plans."
Millions in contracts
So far, the government has been able to reduce the number of kids in border patrol stations from a high of more than 5,700 on March 28 to less than 2,900 on April 13, according to government data. HHS has announced plans to add around 18,500 emergency beds this year, according to a Reuters tally, which would more than double capacity.
This year, between Jan. 25 and April 6, HHS and other federal agencies signed contracts worth about $400 million specifically related to services for unaccompanied children, according to a Reuters analysis of US government spending data.
HHS also has temporarily waived some vetting requirements, including most background checks on adults who live in the same household as sponsors who are close relatives, the department confirmed to Reuters. The agency told congressional staffers this week that it has reduced the amount of time children spend in its custody to 31 days on average from 42 days in February.
But the majority of children in the emergency shelters do not have case managers and so "haven't even begun the process of initiating release to a sponsor," said Neha Desai, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law.
The administration has identified thousands of federal government volunteers with expertise in case management to assist with the effort, one of the three officials said. Still, it has taken weeks to get them trained and supplied with computers and other equipment.
A March 28 job ad seeking people to work with 13- to 17-year-old boys at the Dallas Convention Center highlighted an "IMMEDIATE need."
'You have to wait'
Given the lagging case management, some desperate parents remain in the dark about their children's whereabouts.
Fifteen-year-old Ilene traveled alone from Honduras and crossed the US-Mexico border in mid-March. Her mother, Sarahy, who lives in Dallas, wasn't able to speak to her until Monday, after Ilene had been in government custody for more than a month. Ilene, who told her mother she was in a shelter in San Diego, said she had been sick with COVID-19 for 14 days.
Her mother said the girl, allowed just 10 minutes to talk, seemed sad and anxious and said she had been given no medicine.
"She said 'Mami, I don't want to be here any more. The kids just scream and cry, the big ones and the little ones, they just are crying all the time,' she told me," said Sarahy. She spoke on condition that she and her daughter be identified only by their first names.
Sarahy said she sent documents to someone who said they were a government caseworker and heard nothing back. Recently, another staffer told her the government hadn't received her paperwork.
"All they tell me is, 'You have to wait, you have to wait, you have to wait,'" Sarahy said.
Attorney Melissa Adamson, who represents migrant kids as part of a long-standing legal settlement governing their care, said she recently visited two shelters and spoke with children there. "The first questions of every single child I spoke to were: 'When am I going to be released to my family? How much longer do I have to stay here?"