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'No Easy Answer': Biden Vows To Take In Migrant Children, But Says Most Families Will Be Turned Away

President Joe Biden sits at his desk and signs a document with a pen while wearing a black face mask.
Evan Vucci
Associated Press
In this Feb. 2, 2021, file photo president Joe Biden signs an executive order on immigration, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. The Biden administration is facing growing questions about why it wasn't more prepared for an influx of migrants at the southern border. The administration is scrambling to build up capacity to care for 14,000 young undocumented migrants now in federal custody — and more likely on the way.

Biden announced plans to speed up the processing of migrant children traveling alone to the United States, but said his policy of returning most families to Mexico remains unchanged.

In the first press conference of his presidency on Thursday, President Joe Biden announced plans to fast-track the processing of migrant children out of federal shelters and blamed the influx of migrants arriving at the border on seasonal increases, not “because I’m a nice guy."

Biden said he would redirect U.S. Department of Health and Human Services staff to help children more quickly connect with family in the they can be transferred out of overcrowded facilities.

He also reiterated his administration’s policy to only process migrants at the border who are under 18 and are traveling without a legal guardian. He did not address his continuance of Title 42 expulsions, which have essentially blocked access to asylum for adults and families arriving at the border who have legitimate claims to seek protection in the U.S.

Under former President Donald Trump, nearly all migrants were turned away during the pandemic under a public health code known as Title 42. Biden stopped expelling unaccompanied minors. Republicans have blamed Biden's rollback of part of that policy for the increased number of youth and families arriving at the border.

“The reason they're coming is that it's the time they can travel with the least likelihood of dying on the way because of the heat of the desert,” Biden said in the press conference.

Not all migrant families are being turned away. Some asylum seekers that were forced by the Trump administration to wait out their asylum proceedings in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) policy have also been reprocessed and allowed into the U.S. under Biden, to continue their cases.

But for families not in MPP, access into the U.S. has been unevenly applied with some allowed into the country and others expelled. Recently, some families who entered south Texas have been flown to other border cities, including El Paso and San Diego, and then expelled back into Mexico.

In response to questions about the uneven Title 42 policy, Biden said families should be quickly turned away, but Mexico sometimes has not accepted them.

“They should all be going back,” he said. “The only people we're not going to let sitting there, on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children.” He added that “over 70%” of the migrant youth arriving without a legal guardian “are either 16 or 17 years old.”

He said his administration is in discussions with Mexico to ensure families can be expelled, but said he would not stop allowing unaccompanied children into the country, despite the challenges in sheltering them during the pandemic.

“No previous administrations did that either except Trump,” Biden said. “I'm not gonna do it.”

Biden went on to call cramped conditions in Customs and Border Protection facilities where children are being held “totally unacceptable.” He also confirmed that Fort Bliss in El Paso will be used to house 5,000 migrant children, which should help move kids more quickly out of border facilities that are supposed to house children for less than 72 hours, as outlined by official guidelines. Last week, NPR reported that some kids have been in border holding facilities for ten days, in part because there wasn’t available bed space in migrant shelters for children.

“So we're building back up to capacity that should have been maintained and built upon that Trump dismantled,” Biden said. “It's going to take time.”

Biden has faced criticism for the conditions reported in the different facilities housing migrant children, including emergency sites. In Texas alone, HHS has planned or announced at least eight temporary shelters.

Most recently, the federal agency has planned to use a vacant dormitory at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland and land on El Paso’s Fort Bliss to create more temporary shelters. HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement said it plans to use the Freeman Expo Center in San Antonio to hold up to 2,400 unaccompanied minors.

Some 11,500 children are in federally-funded shelters nationwide and nearly 5,000 children are waiting in Customs and Border Protection custody, according to federal Health and Human Services officials.

Though federal shelters have space for some 13,500 youth, COVID-19 protocols have diminished capacity.

Biden's statement that all families should be going back to Mexico drew quick criticism from American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Lee Gelernt, who sued the Trump administration over Title 42 expulsions. The ACLU agreed to put the case on hold while negotiating with the Biden administration. After hearing the President's remarks, he tweeted, "litigation may be the only choice."

KERA's Mallory Falk contributed to this story.

María Méndez reports for Texas Public Radio from the border city of Laredo where she covers business issues from an area that is now the nation’s top trade hub. She knows Texas well. Méndez has reported on the state’s diverse communities and tumultuous politics through internships at the Austin American-Statesman, The Texas Tribune and The Dallas Morning News. She also participated in NPR’s Next Generation Radio program while studying at the University of Texas at Austin. At UT, she wrote for The Daily Texan and helped launch diversity initiatives, including two collaborative series on undocumented and first-generation college students. One of her stories for these series won an award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She spent the last year reporting for The Dallas Morning News as a summer breaking news intern and then as a fellow in the paper’s capital bureau in Austin. She is a native of Guanajuato in Central Mexico.
Elizabeth Trovall is an immigration reporter for Houston Public Media. She joined the News 88.7 team after several years abroad in Santiago, Chile, where she reported on business, energy, politics and culture. Trovall’s work has been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, Latino USA, Texas Standard and Only A Game. She graduated from University of Missouri’s Reynolds Institute of Journalism, where she reported for the local public radio station KBIA.