The U.S. Department of Security on Saturday ordered an emergency agency that routinely responds to floods, hurricanes and other major disasters to help care for a growing number of migrant children who arrive in US-Mexico border.
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in the news release that he will deploy the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “to help receive, shelter and deliver children” over the next 90 days.
The move signals the scope of a growing humanitarian and political crisis for the administration of President Joe Biden, a Democrat who took office on Jan. 20. The added arrival of Biden added some strict policies of former President Donald Trump, a Republican.
Unaccompanied minors found crossing the border are transferred by immigration officials to another federal agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). But the increase in children coming in without a parent or legal guardian has exceeded shelter capacity, which was previously cut by 40% to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Coronavirus -related capacity restrictions were lifted on March 5, but only about 200 beds returned online last week, an administration official told reporters on Friday.
It’s unclear exactly how FEMA can help, although the agency has expertise in housing and care for the homeless. The Homeland Security statement said FEMA will help look at “every available option to rapidly expand physical capacity for appropriate accommodations.”
A FEMA statement added that it is also working with HHS “to provide food, water and basic medical care.”
Young migrants caught at the border must be moved out of Border Patrol care within 72 hours. But when accommodation space is limited, they can be stuck in border detention centers for longer periods of time – as is happening now.
Border stations are built to accommodate adult males in a short period of time and COVID-19 can pose a health risk to children and staff if they are overcrowded.
More than 3,600 young migrants were being held at U.S. border facilities as of Thursday morning, a U.S. official told Reuters, more than four times the number in late February. As of Friday, the HHS refugee office had an estimated 8,800 unaccompanied children in custody.
FEMA also helped coordinate a response to the influx of unaccompanied minors in 2014, under former President Barack Obama.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Aram Roston; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Dan Grebler)
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