Immigration advocates credit the Biden administration with acting quickly to move tens of thousands of migrant children out of jail-like detention facilities on the U.S. southern border and into safer emergency shelters.
But the advocates are now growing increasingly concerned about the conditions in the mass shelters, such as a military base in El Paso, Texas.
"We saw a lot of very traumatized children," said Leecia Welch, an attorney at the nonprofit National Center for Youth Law, referring to conditions in the tent shelters at Fort Bliss. "The girls told us that a lot of the girls in the tent were crying a lot and they needed to talk to someone because they were having thoughts of self-harm."
The Biden administration is now caring for almost 20,000 migrant children who came to the United States without their parents. Most of them are staying in the emergency shelters, which are run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The facilities include a convention center in Dallas, a coliseum in San Antonio and a former oil field in Midland, Texas.
The Biden administration defended the use of the shelters, emphasizing that it inherited an under-resourced program for unaccompanied migrant children.
"I don't know what's happening with her"
A senior administration official noted that the average stay at the shelters has dropped from 45 days to about 30, and said they have high standards for child care.
But some kids end up staying much longer than the average.
One of the problems, advocates say, is there are not enough caseworkers working on finding families and vetting sponsors.
Lidia Cuyuch Brito, who's 16 and from Guatemala, has been in U.S. government custody for 70 days, first in Texas and now Pennsylvania.
Her older sister, Juana, 32, lives in Iowa City and says she's repeatedly sent paperwork seeking to take custody but has gotten little information in response.
"The truth is I don't know what is happening with her," Juana Cuyuch Brito said.
She said her sister is lonely and confused about why other children have been able to leave, but she hasn't.
Clara Long of Human Rights Watch said she had been eager to see kids get out of border facilities. But now, as the use of the emergency shelters has expanded, she has become alarmed.
"What's happened now is that after this focus on infrastructure and getting kids into these large warehouse converted warehouse type facilities, we have a system of mass detention of kids. And that's definitely not where we should be ending up," Long said.
The Flores agreement
Peter Schey, co-founder of the nonprofit Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, is a lawyer who's behind a decades-old agreement that determines the conditions for holding migrant kids.
He argues that the emergency shelters are a violation of that pact, known as Flores, because they are not licensed. But he says his team has been warned against pursuing the case in court.
"If we put too much pressure on the administration for its violations of the Flores settlement and its unnecessary detention of these children, it could easily respond, and the suggestion has been made to us that it may respond by simply changing part of its policy," Schey said.
For example, Schey said, the government could stop allowing children older than 14 into the country, and remove 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds.
"We do not want to be responsible for that," he said. "As bad as the conditions may be for these children in stadiums and in convention centers, they are an improvement over being forced to live on the streets in some border town where children are subject to extortion, to rape, to crime, etcetera."
Department of Health and Human Services officials told NPR they notify Flores lawyers about every new shelter and welcome them to visit. They added that they're working to increase the number of licensed beds.
No easy choices
Leon Fresco, who worked on this issue for the Obama administration's Justice Department, said Schey is technically right that the facilities should be licensed, but he said there's some leeway under the law during emergency conditions.
"In times that there is a surge, the administration does not have to have the minor in a licensed facility ... but they have to show that they're moving as quickly as possible to having that infrastructure," he said. "But it's not an infrastructure you can get in a matter of days or weeks; it takes months."
Fresco said there are no easy choices, but that the shelters are the better alternative — until you can move children to their parents or family.
Welch, of the National Center for Youth Law, is conducting regular site visits in her role as Flores counsel. She said it's important to recognize the "valiant efforts" the administration made to move children out of border facilities run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
She has been impressed by the deployment of thousands of federal employees and local volunteers who help stand up the emergency intake sites.
But she said it's also premature for the administration "to take a victory lap" when there is government data she has reviewed that shows more than 300 children have been at a Dallas convention center for more than 50 days.
"From my perspective, as a child advocate and as a mom," Welch said of the Dallas site, "when you've got 2,300 kids sleeping in the same massive conference room and they're only getting a few minutes of fresh air a day while they're waiting to take a shower in the loading dock, and it's going on for months, I mean, the government is just not living up to an acceptable standard of care."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Biden's administration is caring for almost 20,000 migrant children who came to the United States without their parents - 20,000. Most are staying in emergency shelters now, shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services, although advocates are concerned about conditions.
NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been talking with those advocates and others. Franco, good morning.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: How did the kids end up in these shelters?
ORDOÑEZ: You know, well, you know, there was such a large surge at the border. And, you know, the first concern was getting kids out of those border facilities, the jail-like facilities. You know, a lot of these new places that they're in now are better, but they're still less than ideal. There are convention centers in San Diego and Dallas and an army post in El Paso and other really big places.
Here's Clara Long of Human Rights Watch.
CLARA LONG: We have a system of mass detention of kids (laughter) and that's definitely not where we should be ending up.
ORDOÑEZ: Now, Clara and others that I've talked with who have met with the children and talked to them, they say the kids are stressed out. Some of these places are really overcrowded. And there's limited access to bathroom facilities and other tough examples.
INSKEEP: I guess it matters how long you stay in a place like that. How long are kids waiting to be sent to a family somewhere?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, you know, the numbers are coming down. The average was 45 days. Now it's about 30 days. But there are some kids who end up staying much longer. And one of the problems is there are not enough caseworkers working on finding families and vetting sponsors.
I talked to Juana Cuyuch Brito. Her 16-year-old sister Lidia came across from Guatemala. Now Juana is trying to get her out of a shelter.
JUANA CUYUCH BRITO: (Speaking Spanish).
ORDOÑEZ: She's saying there that she doesn't know what's happening with her sister. Lidia has spent more than 70 days in custody, first in Texas and now in Pennsylvania. Juana told me her sister is sad and lonely because she's been there so long and watched other kids leave while she's had to stay.
INSKEEP: What can the advocates do about this?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, they're looking at the situation very carefully and weighing their options. But one says it's a Catch-22. I talked to Peter Schey. He was a lawyer behind the Flores settlement. That's the case that years ago determined the conditions for holding these kids. You know, he argues the shelters are a violation of that Flores agreement because most are not licensed. But he says he worries that pursuing the case could backfire.
PETER SCHEY: The suggestion has been made to us that it may respond by simply changing part of its policy, for example, by saying, well, no, we will only allow children to enter the United States to make their claims if they're, let's say, 14 years of age or younger. If they're 15, 16 or 17, we will remove them just the way the Trump administration removed them.
ORDOÑEZ: You know, he told me he wouldn't want to be responsible for older teens being told no, you can't come across the border and have them end up on the streets in Mexico. I did ask the Justice Department about this, and they declined to comment.
INSKEEP: This is really an amazing story of immigration law but in some ways a typical story of immigration law, where you have a lawyer who's worried that strict enforcement of the law would actually be a lot (laughter) worse for people...
INSKEEP: ...Than what's happening now. But what does the administration say about its approach?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, a senior administration official defended the shelters and told me there's a high standard of care for the kids. Health and Human Services told me they notify Flores lawyers about every new shelter and welcome them to visit. And they say they're working to increase the number of licensed beds. I also spoke with Leon Fresco, who worked on this issue for the Obama Justice Department. He says Schey is technically right, that the facilities should be licensed. But he said there's some leeway under the law to give extra time during emergency conditions like a search.
LEON FRESCO: The problem is you can't create those in a day. Those take months to create.
ORDOÑEZ: You know, he says there are no easy choices but that the shelters are the best alternative until, of course, you can move them to their parents or other family members.
INSKEEP: Franco, thanks.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
INSKEEP: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.