Washington — The Biden administration this week reopened a housing facility for unaccompanied migrant children previously at the center of reports of poor living conditions in response to a marked increase in crossings along the southern border, two U.S. officials familiar with the move told CBS News.
The U.S. Department of Health of Human Services facility, a former camp for oil workers in Pecos, Texas, officially stopped housing migrant children in federal custody this spring. But HHS reopened the site, which it calls an “influx care facility,” after bed capacity at its traditional shelters dwindled, the U.S. officials said, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The Pecos facility, which is currently able to house up to 500 migrant teenagers, welcomed a group of unaccompanied minors on Tuesday, one of the officials disclosed.
In a statement to CBS News, HHS confirmed it had reactivated the site, and that it was working to open another influx housing facility at a former boarding school in Greensboro, North Carolina. While the Greensboro site was set to open last month, it has no current activation date, officials said.
“While (the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s) priority is to place children into standard care provider facilities, access to (Influx Care Facility) capacity remains necessary to ensure that ORR can promptly accept referrals when ORR’s other network facilities reach or approach capacity,” the agency said. “With this in mind, the status of the ICF at Pecos has changed from ‘warm status’ to active status and is currently accepting children.”
The move to reopen the former work camp comes amid a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border.
In August alone, HHS received more than 13,000 unaccompanied migrant children — an average of 431 a day — from U.S. border officials, according to internal government data obtained by CBS News. In July, for contrast, HHS received an average of 304 migrant children per day. Due to the increase in border crossings, the department’s traditional shelters recently reached 85% capacity, one of the U.S. officials said.
Under federal law, U.S. border officials must transfer unaccompanied migrant children who are not from Mexico to HHS, which houses them until they turn 18 or can be placed with a U.S.-based sponsor, who is typically a relative. The law also prevents their quick deportation and allows them to seek asylum or other immigration benefits, such as visas for at-risk youth.
As of Wednesday morning, HHS was housing more than 10,600 migrant children, a 75% increase from the start of July, when the agency had 6,000 unaccompanied minors in its custody, federal data shows.
Record numbers of unaccompanied minors have crossed the southern border in the past two years as part of an unprecedented migration influx under President Biden. In fiscal year 2022, U.S. border officials transferred 130,000 unaccompanied children to HHS, an all-time high that surpassed the previous record set in 2021.
The record levels of child migration to the U.S. border started early on in Mr. Biden’s administration, which in 2021 was forced to set up several makeshift shelters for unaccompanied minors at military bases, convention centers and work camps, including in Pecos, to alleviate overcrowding in Border Patrol facilities.
Soon after they were established, the emergency housing sites became the subject of allegations of subpar services and poor living conditions. At the Pecos facility, migrant children complained of being served undercooked food, not receiving prompt medical attention and spending weeks at the site, despite having sponsors in the U.S.
At another facility, a tent complex inside the Fort Bliss Army base in Texas, the mental health among some children there deteriorated to the point that they were monitored for escape attempts, panic attacks and incidents of self-harm. HHS deactivated the Fort Bliss site in June, though it can technically be reopened.
HHS said it took several remedial measures to improve conditions at the influx facilities, including the ones in Pecos and Fort Bliss.
Overall illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico borders have also been increasing sharply in recent months. After dropping to a two-year low in June, apprehensions of migrants rose by 33% in July and continued to increase in August, according to public and internal Border Patrol data.