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Unaccompanied minors have been arriving at the southern U.S. border in record numbers since President Joe Biden took office, and Republican leaders in border states have been quick to highlight the challenges the federal government is facing.
Gov. Greg Abbott has hammered the Biden administration on border issues throughout March. First he accused the administration of "reckless border policies" that have released migrants who tested positive for COVID-19 into the U.S. And in recent weeks, the governor has focused on the uptick of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border.
On March 30, Abbott claimed in a tweet that "twice as many children are in Border Patrol custody under Biden than Trump peak in 2019."
"The Biden Admin. is unprepared for the crises they have caused," Abbott continued, adding that state police and National Guard forces have been dispatched to assist in the situation.
2019 was the last year border authorities recorded a surge in migrant children and family crossings. And authorities believe that the number of encounters this year will surpass levels seen then.
But is it true that the number of unaccompanied minors in federal custody today is already twice the highest number recorded in 2019 under former President Donald Trump?
Abbott’s claim cited an article published Tuesday by the Washington Examiner, a conservative Washington, D.C., news site. Citing "federal data exclusively obtained Monday evening," the website reported the same claim.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed the numbers. Under Trump, the government recorded a peak of 2,600 unaccompanied minors in federal custody in June 2019. In 2020, the Trump administration stopped taking minors into custody after it implemented a policy that immediately expelled all people crossing the border, including children, citing COVID-19 precautions.
The Biden administration suspended that policy for children in January and now allows children who cross the border alone to remain in the U.S. while they await immigration court proceedings.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection also released to PolitiFact a daily memo reporting the number of unaccompanied children in government custody. As of March 29, the number of unaccompanied children in custody was 5,160, which is nearly twice the number recorded in June 2019.
The memo also reported that an average of 492 unaccompanied children were being placed in federal custody each day in March, while an average of 399 were being transferred out of custody daily.
With facility intake consistently outpacing output, "obviously, those numbers are going to stack up," a senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told reporters during a March 26 briefing.
Migrant children can be held at Border Patrol facilities for a maximum of 72 hours, a rule set forth under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. From there, children are referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, within U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is tasked with providing care for the minors and connecting them with suitable sponsors.
But the strain the high number of migrant children has placed on the system has caused many minors to be held up at the Border Patrol facilities beyond the 72-hour limit. (The Trump administration also struggled with meeting that limit.) As of March 30, for instance, more than 2,000 children being held at a Border Patrol facility in Donna had been there for more than 72 hours, according to Pro Publica.
"We need to do a better job of ensuring that HHS and ORR has greater capacity, and we need to speed up the transfer of these children from our custody to their custody much faster," the Border Patrol official said.
The Biden administration has raced to establish greater capacity in the Office of Refugee Resettlement to relieve the bottleneck within Border Patrol facilities. The agency has activated or opened what it calls influx care facilities, which are unlicensed care facilities that offer surplus shelter space and can be set up in a matter of weeks, and emergency intake sites, which are new facilities that serve as waystations for unaccompanied children moving from Border Patrol custody to Office of Refugee Resettlement custody, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Many of these new or temporary shelters have been opened across Texas. Influx care facilities now operate in Carrizo Springs and Pecos; emergency intake sites have been opened in a Dallas convention center and a former oil workers' camp in Midland.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise factors that are causing today’s numbers of unaccompanied children to double 2019’s peak, experts say.
Immigration experts often separate migration drivers into two categories: push factors, or the conditions in origin countries that are causing people to leave home; and pull factors, or the conditions of a destination country that make it a more attractive place to live.
Immigration policies in the U.S. are often listed as a significant pull factor, and Biden relaxing those policies following Trump’s immigration austerity is often cited as a significant one.
But many experts say that it’s the push factors in migrants’ home countries that are strong drivers of migration into the U.S. In 2019, Honduras struggled with civil unrest and an increase in gang violence, while Guatemalans wrestled with environmental issues that impacted the population’s food security.
This year, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua suffered two category-4 hurricanes that struck the region within a two-week span. With millions left in need of aid, the hurricanes exacerbated poverty and worsened access to clean water, giving an extra nudge to people considering northern migration.
"The hurricanes made a huge difference," said Yael Schacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International. "People were in a situation where they were just getting by, and then the hurricane wiped them out."
Abbott said in a tweet that twice as many unaccompanied children are in Border Patrol custody presently than during the peak number seen in 2019 under Trump.
Numbers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection verify this claim. The Trump administration recorded 2,600 minors in Border Patrol custody in June 2019, which was the highest amount seen during Trump’s term.
As of March 29, 5,160 minors were in Border Patrol custody waiting to be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is 40 minors short of double 2,600.
We rate this claim True.
Tweet, Greg Abbott, March 30, 2021
Washington Examiner, Twice as many children are in Border Patrol custody under Biden than Trump peak in 2019, March 30, 2021
PolitiFact Texas, Border surge of minors is due to numerous factors, Biden policies among them, March 29, 2021
Emails with Nate Peeters, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs, March 31, 2021
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Unaccompanied Children Daily Report, March 30, 2021
U.S. Customs and Border Protection: Backgrounder with US Border Patrol Officer, Final Transcript, March 26, 2021
New York Times, ‘No Place for a Child’: Inside the Tent Camp Housing Thousands of Migrant Children, March 30, 2021
Interview with Yael Schacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International, April 1, 2021
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, FACT SHEET Unaccompanied Children (UC) Program, March 1, 2021
Pro Publica, "No Good Choices": HHS Is Cutting Safety Corners to Move Migrant Kids Out of Overcrowded Facilities, April 1, 2021
U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Unaccompanied Children’s Arrivals are a Humanitarian Challenge—But a Solvable One, March 2021
Congressional Research Service, The "Flores Settlement" and Alien Families Apprehended at the U.S. Border: Frequently Asked Questions, Sept. 17, 2018
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