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Explainer: Biden White House grapples with challenges of young children arriving without parents at US border

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Toddlers appearing alone in immigration courtrooms. Pre-teens in federal shelters. Infants without their parents for weeks or months at a time. 

The number of tender age migrant children showing up unaccompanied at the border has been on a steady rise, posing unique and troubling challenges for federal officials. 

In November, officials counted 484 tender age migrant children — from infants to 12 years old — in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency charged with taking care of them, according to agency statistics. That number more than tripled to 1,478 in March, the last month HHS released those figures. 

Young unaccompanied migrants wait for their turn at the secondary processing station inside the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley in Donna, Texas, March 30, 2021.

In that period, the number of migrant children aged 0 to 5 years old, considered the most vulnerable and at-risk in federal shelters, nearly doubled from 97 to 170. Advocates said the number of tender-age children is believed to be much higher. 

Overall, the number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border is on the decline, with 14,158 migrant children intercepted in May, down from 17,148 in April, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics released this week. 

Luis Zayas
When you have a child in a detention center or any custody, you’re bringing a lot of stress on the child … Those kids could have long-term intellectual problems and behavioral problems that could last a lifetime if we don’t intervene.

It’s unclear whether the youngest of those children — 0 to 12 years old — have experienced a similar slide since the federal government hasn’t released those figures since March. But advocates said their presence in federal custody, thought to be in the thousands, present the biggest challenge to President Joe Biden’s administration.   

“When you have a child in a detention center or any custody, you’re bringing a lot of stress on the child,” said Luis Zayas, dean of the University of Texas at Austin’s Steve Hicks School of Social Work, who has toured some of the migrant facilities. “Especially in the younger ones, where the brain is still wiring itself for all the things we need in life … Those kids could have long-term intellectual problems and behavioral problems that could last a lifetime if we don’t intervene.”

13 emergency shelters house thousands of migrant children 

The Biden administration has opened around 13 emergency intake facilities around the country to temporarily house the streams of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. The children are housed in the shelters temporarily before being released to family members in the United States. 

But the emergency shelters are not state-licensed to serve as shelters for children and advocates have raised concerns about how equipped federal contractors are to care for the youngest of those children. 

Last month, federal officials scrapped plans to transfer more than 5,000 tender-age children to a makeshift shelter at the U.S. Army base in Fort Bliss, Texas, after advocates complained that the shelter was ill-equipped to handle such young migrants.

Under former President Donald Trump, federal immigration agents forcibly separated young children from their parents at the border under the administration’s widely-criticized “zero tolerance” policy.

Why parents are sending children to the US

Migrant children today are arriving alone as a choice by their family to send them across the border without parents, often with siblings or other family members, with the goal of reuniting later. Parents send children across the border hoping they’ll get preferential treatment from U.S. immigration officials. Other times, parents dispatch children from their home countries if they’re threatened and the parents can’t make the trip, advocates said. 

Shelter for migrant children opens in Long Beach, CA

A new emergency federal shelter in California is starting to receive immigrant children from border facilities. About 150 children were expected Thursday at the facility in the Long Beach Convention Center. (April 22)

AP

But the youngest of those children don’t differentiate between being separated by federal officials or family members and will experience similar trauma, said Alicia Lieberman, director of the Child Trauma Research Program at the University of California, San Francisco. The program has treated dozens of migrant children separated from and later reunited with their families. 

One boy from El Salvador she’s treated over the years was 3-1/2 years old when he was separated from his father at the border and didn’t reunite with his family for several years, she said. Today, that child, living in California, is gripped by anxiety if the father is just a few minutes late picking him up from school, Lieberman said. 

“Children don’t quite understand why it is that the parents send them alone,” she said. “It’s a very tragic situation.”

Shelter life can create mental health problems for children 

The amount of time spent in federal shelters is also pivotal to a young child’s mental health, Lieberman said. The youngest of migrant children — infants to 5 years old — who are separated from their parents even for a few days often develop a coping mechanism where they don’t recognize the parents when they’re reunited, she said. 

“Six days [in a federal shelter] for a one-year-old could be really terrifying,” Lieberman said. 

Advocates who have visited emergency intake facilities sheltering tender age children said the children appear to be well taken care of. But the longer the children are kept in custody, the more detrimental it becomes for the minor, advocates said. 

Neha Desai
As a children’s rights attorney and a mother of tender age children, there is no doubt in my mind that an unlicensed, emergency intake site is a fundamentally inappropriate environment for young children.

“From what our team has observed, tender age children in [emergency intake shelters] are being held in environments that are far more child friendly than [shelters] where only older children are placed,” said Neha Desai, an immigration attorney with the non-profit National Center for Youth Law who has visited the shelters. 

“That said, as a children’s rights attorney and a mother of tender age children, there is no doubt in my mind that an unlicensed, emergency intake site is a fundamentally inappropriate environment for young children,” she said.

Lawyers with Kids in Need of Defense, which provides pro bono legal support to migrant children, have seen children as young as 2 or 3 years old appear alone in courtrooms for removal hearings, said Wendy Young, KIND’s president.

“It’s shocking to see a toddler go into a courtroom like that,” she said.

Besides ensuring that younger children have legal representation, the immigration detention system should be reimagined to better care for tender-age children, she said. 

“We’re going to have these periods that the numbers go high and the system needs to flex for that,” Young said. 

Zayas, the UT dean, said many of the children arriving at the border go on to attend U.S. schools and become contributing members of society. Caring for them now will ensure more stable adults later, he said. 

“It’s not just today but the tomorrow we have to think about,” Zayas said. 

Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.

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