While U.S. taking steps to speed up release of asylum-seeking kids, advocates say concerns remain

While U.S. taking steps to speed up release of asylum-seeking kids, advocates say concerns remain

The Biden administration will allow officials to bypass policy that required relatives and other sponsors to have to pay for the flights of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in U.S. custody, the Associated Press (AP) reports. Government policy has typically required sponsors to have to pay for the transportation costs of children they’ve agreed to care for. But with costs ranging from the mid-hundreds to as high as $1,000 per child, costs have cruelly prolonged the harmful detention of children.

The AP reports the administration is now allowing Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities to bypass this policy and assist some sponsors with fees as needed (though it’s unclear how many). The change is part of an effort by the Biden administration to expedite the release of children from facilities that have been forced to limit space due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

To assist with travel arrangements is a welcome policy change by the new administration. Every Last One Executive Director Dr. Amy Cohen told the AP that just this week, a client was told that in order to be able to take custody of a child who was being released from an ORR facility, she would have to bring a certified check to hand off at the airport. The child had already been in custody for weeks. This is not an uncommon occurrence, she told the AP. “Facilities have told families that they will not release a child unless they specifically go to a specific travel agency and purchase tickets,” she said.

But worrying advocates was the news this week that the Biden administration was reopening two prison camps for children closed by the previous administration, camps that are not subject to the same licensing standards as ORR facilities. The Carrizo Springs camp in Texas will be operated by private contractor BCFS Health and Human Services, which operated the closed prison camp in Tornillo. It’s unknown at the moment if the camp reopening in Homestead, Florida will again be operated by Caliburn International, which “has ties to John Kelly,” Miami New Times reported.

The Biden administration’s reasoning for reopening the Carrizo Springs and Homestead camps—the latter has now been renamed the Biscayne Influx Care Facility—is limited spacing at ORR facilities due to the pandemic, and more children arriving at the southern border. But advocates like Japanese American-led Tsuru for Solidarity said “[a]s the Biden administration knows, when migrant children cannot be immediately reunited with their families, the appropriate and humane setting is a small-scale, home-like environment where they receive care and supervision from licensed child welfare professionals.” 

While the Carrizo Springs camp was open for only a month, Homestead was notorious for both its abuses and secrecy, packing kids in tents “like sardines” and denying access to sitting members of the House and Senate.

These types of camps “are inherently traumatizing for children, no matter how clean it is or how many recreation activities the authorities may schedule inside,” Tsuru for Solidarity said. Child welfare experts agree. “Detention sites like Carrizo Springs are not child-friendly shelters and should not exist in the first place,” the group continued. Among the organization’s members are survivors of the internment of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government during World War II, and they have been outspoken advocates of children’s rights and dignity for years.

Advocates like National Center for Youth Law Senior Director of Child Welfare Leecia Welch told the AP: “HHS could have made several policy changes months ago that would alleviate what she called ‘a government-created crisis,’” and “called on U.S. officials to explore other ways to release children from HHS faster,” the report continued. Assisting sponsors with travel accommodations is certainly a significant start. It must happen quickly, and safely.

Temporary facilities too often fail to meet adequate standards of care and have a history of abuse.   Children who arrive alone at the border should be welcomed with dignity, housed in permanent shelters, and united with their families or sponsors as quickly as humanly possible.

— Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrotx) February 25, 2021

I’m working with my colleagues in Congress to improve the current situation for unaccompanied children — and ultimately to completely reimagine and rebuild the asylum system.

— Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrotx) February 25, 2021

“While we recognize the Biden administration’s efforts to process unaccompanied children in a responsible way that addresses public health needs and prioritizes children’s safety,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Naureen Shah said according to the report, “it is critical that it not repeat the mistakes of the Trump administration.” NBC News reports that more of these camps may soon be on the way, making this a pivotal time to to not worsen the damage inflicted on kids. 

“We demand greater transparency from the Biden administration for the public to verify that this use of mass detention is a temporary aberration, that children will be held there for as brief a period as possible, and that for any short period in which Carrizo Springs remains open, officials are doing everything possible to mitigate the harms of being held there,” Tsuru for Solidarity continued. “President Biden’s election represented the hopes of Americans who want a country without child and family detention. We call on him now to enact visionary changes to this broken system instead of repeating history.”

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