HHS secretary praises 'progress' at Fort Bliss site for migrant kids amid claims of poor conditions

·Reporter
·6-min read

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said Monday the Biden administration is looking to start shutting down some of the temporary facilities that were quickly stood up this spring to house large numbers of unaccompanied migrant children, but indicated that some of the sites will remain open in case of another surge at the border.

“We want to make sure we are prepared,” Becerra said. “We don’t want to see CBP [Customs and Border Protection] become overcrowded again with children.”

Becerra spoke to reporters on the phone Monday afternoon after visiting HHS’s emergency intake site for migrant children at Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army base in El Paso, Texas. With the potential to house as many as 10,000 children in massive, soft-sided tents, the Fort Bliss site is the largest of the emergency intake sites opened by HHS — and among the most controversial. It has been the subject of multiple reports alleging poor, unsanitary and otherwise inadequate conditions, including a court filing last week with declarations from children who described a lack of privacy, as little as one hour of recreation each day and overwhelming anxiety caused by prolonged detention.

Xavier Becerra, secretary of Health and Human Services, testifies during the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra testifies at a Senate hearing on June 10. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The secretary’s visit prompted protests from some local activists who called for the facility to be shut down. But Becerra would not say whether Fort Bliss was among the sites the administration intends to close, even in light of recent complaints. He also sidestepped requests to confirm recent reports that the White House had called for an investigation of the facility’s conditions, saying only that HHS looks into all claims of poor treatment or abuse made by children in its custody.

Becerra seemed eager to avoid the allegations altogether, telling reporters that the reason for his visit to Fort Bliss was “to see the progress we’ve made.”

“When I came in, CBP was housing thousands of kids for far longer than 72 hours,” Becerra said, referring back to mid-March, when he was confirmed to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for the care of migrant children in U.S. custody.

Then a combination of factors, including a hiring freeze at the Office of Refugee Resettlement and pandemic-related capacity constraints at licensed childcare facilities that normally house migrant children, had left HHS struggling to keep up with the growing number of minors coming across the border. As a result, CBP facilities quickly filled with children, many of whom were detained for much longer than the legal 72-hour limit in jail-like settings designed for adults. By late March, the number of unaccompanied minors in CBP custody surpassed 5,000.

The U.S. Army Fort Bliss base stands in El Paso, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. (Adria Malcolm/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
An entrance to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. (Adria Malcolm/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In an effort to reduce the amount of time these children were being forced to wait in overcrowded conditions, the Biden administration quickly began opening a number of what it called emergency intake sites: temporary, HHS-run facilities capable of housing large numbers of migrant children while officials worked to increase bed capacity within the federal refugee office’s network of permanent, state-licensed childcare facilities.

Though these were generally seen as a better environment for vulnerable children than the jail-like settings at CBP holding centers or, even worse, dangerous Mexican border towns, some advocates worried about the kinds of reduced hiring standards HHS seemed to be using in order to get these new facilities up and running so quickly, and what kind of services the sites would provide. In total, the administration opened 14 of these emergency sites, including the one at Fort Bliss, and began filling them with children from the border, quickly accomplishing its goal of clearing the backlog of kids in CBP custody.

Becerra declared that the recent reduction in the number of children at these emergency facilities is also proof of the “progress that’s been made to provide the best care for kids while they’re in our temporary custody.”

Activists defending the rights of migrants hold a protest near Fort Bliss to call for the end of the detention of unaccompanied minors at the facility in El Paso, Texas, U.S, June 8, 2021.  (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
A protest near Fort Bliss on June 8 to call for the end of the detention of unaccompanied minors at the facility. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

As of Monday, Becerra said he was informed that there were a total of 790 kids, all boys, being housed at Fort Bliss — a marked drop from the more than 4,400 boys and girls who were being held there the last time he visited, about a month ago. Less than a week ago, HHS said the number of children at Fort Bliss was 1,500. Becerra noted that the numbers at Fort Bliss are part of a broader trend: As of Monday there were over 14,000 unaccompanied minors in HHS custody, down from roughly 23,000 in late April.

Becerra said this sharp decline can be attributed to HHS’s recent efforts to ramp up its ability to more rapidly discharge migrant children from its custody, including by bringing on more trained case management personnel at emergency intake sites like Fort Bliss. According to HHS, the number of case managers working at these emergency sites went up from 909 as of April 26 to 1,776 by May 21 — a 95 percent increase.

But these figures appear to represent a very recent fix to what attorneys advocating for migrant children have argued is one of the biggest challenges facing those held at emergency intake sites like Fort Bliss.

Activists defending the rights of migrants hold a protest near Fort Bliss to call for the end of the detention of unaccompanied minors at the facility in El Paso, Texas on June 8, 2021. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
Protesters near Fort Bliss. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

In late May, Yahoo News reported that attorneys who’d visited Fort Bliss observed that the children, a number of whom reported not receiving clean clothes for several days, spent most of their time sitting around on the flimsy bunk cots that filled enormous, foul-smelling tents that housed about 900 to 1,000 children each. Most concerning for the attorneys, though, was the psychological and emotional toll they said these conditions seemed to be having on many of the children who’d been at Fort Bliss for prolonged periods of time, which they attributed to the site’s lack of adequate case management staff.

The lawyers who were given access to Fort Bliss and other emergency intake sites are part of a legal team tasked with monitoring the federal government’s compliance with the 1997 Flores settlement agreement, which dictates the conditions required for immigrant children detained in the U.S. Last week, the same team of attorneys reiterated their concerns in a court filing, writing that as of early June, “children at the Fort Bliss [emergency intake site] sleep in rows of bunk cots in giant tents with hundreds of other children, enjoy no privacy, receive almost no structured education, have little to do during the day, and lack adequate mental health care to address children’s severe anxiety and distress surrounding their prolonged detention.”

While Becerra did not address the specific complaints raised about Fort Bliss, he told reporters Monday that HHS officials are “in inconstant touch with the court to make sure we are in compliance” with the Flores settlement agreement.

“We are not trying to evade the law, we’re not trying to fight the law,” he said. “We’re trying to work with the plaintiffs, and we’ll continue to do that.”

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