DHS asks Congress to deport unaccompanied minors, open up more emergency shelters

Children photographed at the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied minors in early March 2019.
Children photographed at the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied minors in early March 2019. Courtesy of Carrie Feit

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the agency wants to deport migrant children back to their home countries, citing a “system-wide meltdown,” according to a letter she sent to Congress on Thursday.

“DHS seeks authority to return [unaccompanied minors] to their families and home countries in a safe and orderly manner if they have no legal right to stay,” Nielsen wrote in a four-page letter, obtained by the Miami Herald. “The volume of vulnerable populations is unsustainable.”

Federal officials define unaccompanied minors as anyone under 18 who crossed the southern border without a biological parent. If they arrive with a relative other than their biological parent, they are separated at the border under a policy the Trump administration has adopted.

In the letter, Nielsen called on Congress to allocate funds to increase the number of beds at existing immigrant detention centers, as well as expand the number of temporary shelters.

The only temporary shelter that remains open nationwide is the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied minors in South Miami-Dade. Under pressure, the Trump administration in January shut down the nation’s only other temporary shelter in Tornillo, Texas, and authorized adding at least 1,000 beds to the Homestead facility, which is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“We need additional temporary facilities as soon as possible in order to process arriving aliens, especially those entering illegally between ports of entry,” Nielsen wrote. “We are witnessing the real-time dissolution of the immigration system.”

Temporary emergency shelters, according to federal officials, are any “unlicensed care provider facility that provides temporary emergency shelter and services for unaccompanied alien children when licensed facilities are near or at capacity.”

Children photographed at the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied minors in early March 2019. Courtesy of Carrie Feit

Being unlicensed means the facilities like Homestead don’t have to be certified by state authorities responsible for regulating facilities that house children. Temporary shelters also don’t have to comply with the 1997 “Flores Settlement,” which limits the length of time under which U.S. officials can detain children at detention centers — 20 days maximum.

Temporary shelters for children do not fall under the 20-day rule, HHS officials have told the Miami Herald: “We don’t have a deadline on the timely manner.”

In the letter, Nielsen said agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection are so overwhelmed at the border that they still have children in their custody.

“Because of the surge in arrivals, CBP has high numbers of children that have not been transferred,” she said. “HHS is taking steps to rapidly add thousands of shelter beds. But in the short term, HHS is still approaching its maximum capacity and will very likely require thousands of additional beds in the coming weeks and months.”

Nielsen warned Congress that keeping children at border locations “represents our most acute humanitarian risk” and that beds aren’t the only thing the department will need if it continues to house unaccompanied minors.

“We now project that we will need at least hundreds of additional personnel to support CBP and ICE,” the letter said. “In light of the above, DHS requests immediate assistance from Congress, including emergency resources and specific authorities to cope with the escalating situation.”

Congress is the branch of the U.S. government that allocates federal funds.

According to DHS, late last year, the department apprehended 50,000 to 60,000 migrants a month at the southern border.

“Last month, we apprehended more than 75,000, the highest in over a decade. And this month, we are on track to interdict nearly 100,000 migrants. Unlike previous flows, these migrants are not arriving in high numbers, one-at-a-time. They are arriving in large groups,” Nielsen wrote.

She added: “Our men and women on the frontlines are simply not resourced to handle these levels, and I report to you today that we are struggling to transport and process — let alone adequately care for — this many individuals coming into our custody.”

Earlier this month, Florida Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, released data provided to him by HHS that revealed that thousands of migrant children have been sexually abused while being detained at U.S. government-run shelters.

The documents showed that 4,556 sexual abuse complaints were reported to the Office of Refugee Resettlement between October 2014 and July 2018. The allegations include rape, sexual assault and harassment.

In some instances, HHS contracts with for-profit companies to run the shelters. The Virginia-based Caliburn International Corp. runs the Homestead shelter. Earlier this month, the company told the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was canceling its $100 million stock offering. The press has widely reported about conditions at the Homestead shelter.

In her letter to Congress, Nielsen said she met with Mexican authorities this week to discuss what can be done to help control the “historic flows.”

She said she signed a “first-ever regional impact” with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the three Central American countries where most of the migrants are coming from. She wants to address “irregular migration, counter human smuggling and trafficking and crack down on transnational criminal organizations that are also fueling the crisis.”

Nielsen’s office did not provide the document to the Miami Herald Friday.

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Monique O. Madan covers immigration and enterprise; she previously covered breaking news and local government. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and The Dallas Morning News. She is currently a Reveal Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She graduated from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston. A note to tipsters: If you want to send Monique confidential information, her email and mailbox are open. The address is 3511 NW 91st Ave, Doral, FL 33172. You can also direct message her on social media and she’ll provide encrypted Signal details.