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Biden’s border strategy faces crucial test amid dramatic surge of migrant children

But that strategy is already being stressed by the hundreds of unaccompanied children arriving each day at the US southern border, overwhelming border facilities and raising alarm among officials scrambling to accommodate them.

Senior administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, traveled to the border region over the weekend to take stock of what’s unfolding on the ground. The scenes the group witnessed in Donna and Carrizo Springs, Texas, were alarming, one person familiar with the matter said, describing migrants who had been in the facilities for several days, as well as a sense the surge is likely to grow.

The group presented their findings to Biden in a formal briefing on Wednesday.

The sudden spike in children is being driven by the devastation left behind by two major hurricanes last year, the toll of the pandemic, and a perceived relaxation of enforcement. Under the Trump administration, border officials had also been turning away migrants, including children, after putting in place a public health order related to the coronavirus pandemic. While the Biden administration is still leaning on that policy, the administration has taken the position it will allow children arriving on their own into the US, resulting in more kids in US custody.

The President and his team are weighing a series of decisions that could expand capacity for the children arriving in the US and ease what is quickly becoming both a humanitarian and political challenge for the new administration.

Officials said that while an increase of children arriving at the border was expected in light of the Biden administration’s decision not to expel kids, a surge of the current magnitude was not.

“They’re overwhelmed,” a former Homeland Security official said. “There’s not enough staff there yet, they’re tired, they’ve been sprinting for a month and a half.”

“They recognize that getting this right is vital,” the official said. “There’s only one way through this: you have to fix the operational challenges.”

Early warning signs

Thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who crossed the US-Mexico border are being held in Border Patrol custody for more than four days on average, a dramatic spike in the time spent in facilities and overwhelming an already-stressed system, according to internal documents reviewed by CNN. The data, dated Tuesday, is the latest indication of a bottleneck in the system, with the number of unaccompanied children outpacing shelter space and leaving thousands of kids staying in facilities not equipped for them.

On average, over the last 21 days, Customs and Border Protection encountered 435 unaccompanied children daily, up from a previous average of around 340 children. They are staying in facilities for 107 hours on average, longer than the 72 permitted under US law. A week ago, the average time was 77 hours.

Is there a border crisis? It depends who you ask, but it's clear that more migrants are crossing into the US

The trends are particularly concerning given the time of year. Usually, arrests increase on the border in the spring and summer months, foreshadowing a more pressing challenge on the horizon.

Aggravated by pandemic-era restrictions that limited the capacity of government facilities, the system is now overwhelmed by the uptick in migrant children, forcing the Biden administration squarely into a mire that could complicate efforts to enact broader reforms to the immigration system.

While multiple agencies are dealing with the issue, inside the White House, the border effort is being managed by a small team working alongside Susan Rice, the director of the Domestic Policy Council who previously served as Obama’s national security adviser. Roberta Jacobson, a former ambassador to Mexico was tapped by Biden to oversee US southern border policy. Esther Olavarria, the deputy assistant to the President for immigration, also plays a key role.

“We’ve seen surges before. Surges tend to respond to hope, and there was a significant hope for a more humane policy after four years of, you know, pent up demand,” Jacobson told reporters at a press briefing at the White House on Wednesday.

“I don’t know whether I would call that a coincidence, but I certainly think that the idea that a more humane policy would be in place may have driven people to make that decision, but perhaps more importantly, it definitely drove smugglers to express this information to spread disinformation about what was now possible,” she added.

Critics tee off

Analysis: There's a new surge of kids at the border, but the Biden administration won't call it a crisis

Already, Republicans have seized on the situation to accuse the President of inviting the problem through his messaging on reversing his predecessor’s policies. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is leading a group of House Republicans to the southern border on Monday to highlight what they have decried as poor handling of the migrant situation.

Some Democrats have also been critical of Biden’s handling of the matter, suggesting the detention of families and children in temporary facilities is no better than how Trump handled migrant children during his time in office.

The administration has responded by seeking to expand capacity, a process that can take weeks if not months, even as officials refuse to describe what’s happening as a “crisis.”

That messaging has fueled a sense of confusion among the workforce at the immigration enforcement and border agencies about the direction the Biden administration wants to take, a senior government official told CNN.

“There is a lack of clarity being shared by the White House on the objectives desired policy goals,” the official said.

“If you want to facilitate as many people as you can who want to come in and as fast as you can, then own it. If you want as many people to come in as fast as you can, and you also want to hold back the tide, then own it,” the official said about allowing migrants into the US.

During the Obama administration, Biden and several of his top officials weathered an earlier wave of migrant children in 2014. Some of the playbook in responding to that event — which the Obama administration described at the time as a “humanitarian crisis” — is being considered again.

Then, as now, the surge of migrants was prompted in part by a perception the Obama administration was adopting a more welcoming approach to migrants at the border. The precedent led some Biden officials to anticipate the current situation, though the scale was not expected.

Record number of migrant children held in Border Patrol custody as cases climb overnight

“It’s always hard to estimate how big the numbers would be, but it was always clear there would be a need for more capacity if the government was going to stop expelling children,” said Mark Greenberg, a former Health and Human Services official who was involved in the Biden transition.

“Because of Covid, they had greatly reduced bed capacity. That capacity has not been enough for the increased number of children. It was foreseeable months ago that there was going to be a problem if bed capacity wasn’t going to be increased,” he added.

Biden himself, officials said, is viewing the matter through a human lens.

“The way he looks at it isn’t just from a policy perspective, it’s from a human perspective,” a White House official said. “We think about it at a big policy level. He thinks about in a very granular human level.”

So far, that has not included any plans for the President to visit the facilities himself or deliver formal remarks that might shed more light on what his administration is doing to counter the flow of migrants or accommodate them once they are in the United States.

A fact-finding mission

Why the big numbers you're hearing about the border are only part of the story

Biden dispatched the delegation to the border last weekend as a fact-finding mission, officials said. At the two sites, which include tent facilities, the officials spoke with some of the people who are in charge of running them, rank-and-file officials working there and a few of the migrants who are being held in the facilities, including some of the children.

Several of the officials on the trip spoke Spanish, and could communicate directly with the migrants who were being held.

“He heard from the delegation on what they observed during their visit to the border region and the facilities they toured, but they spent the majority of their time discussing what steps can be taken to … move the process more quickly to meet the administration’s goal of getting these children placed with vetted and confirmed families,” press secretary Jen Psaki said.

Behind the scenes, Biden has quizzed aides on what more can be done through the executive branch to expedite processing of migrant children and expand the capacity for housing them. He’s raised the issue in informal meetings and during otherwise-unrelated discussions with senior advisers.

“When he’s asking questions and he’s asking for details, it’s not just a report back on numbers — what are the things we already have in our toolbox that we can be deploying?” the official added, saying that he’s encouraged staff to think outside the box. “Every single little space of White House operations, and of different agencies, are devoting time and resources to doing this and that’s what it’s going to take.”

“We’re not keeping up”

Infamous tent camp on US-Mexico border drawn down after Biden ends Trump policy

An immediate step has been embedding staff from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a part of Health and Human Services, with officials from Customs and Border Protection in an effort to cut down on the processing time for migrants and limit the amount of time children are kept in CBP custody.

Yet, according to the recent court filing, some Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities are “struggling with staffing shortages,” making it difficult to fill posts as the agency tries to expand its network to accommodate unaccompanied children.

“We’re not keeping up,” a Department of Health and Human Services official previously told CNN, referring to the department’s capacity to care for unaccompanied migrant children.

Officials said the administration was also looking at operationalizing more shelter facilities, including “outside the box” ideas for where they could house unaccompanied minors, like out-of-use summer camps, schools, hotels and military bases.

There's a lot of misinformation around what's happening at the border. Here are the facts.

Internal correspondence underscores the urgency among officials. This week, Mayorkas asked DHS employees to volunteer to help support the “surge” of migrants along the US- Mexico border, calling the situation “overwhelming,” according to a DHS source who received the email sent by Mayorkas on Monday.

“Today I activated the Volunteer Force to support Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as they face a surge in migration along the southwest border. You have likely seen news about the overwhelming numbers of migrants seeking access to this country along the southwest border,” the email read. Around 300 agents have already been temporarily assigned to the Rio Grande Valley, where arrests are increasing, “to meet mission demands,” according to a recent court filing.

Last Friday, HHS also notified facilities caring for migrant children that they can open back up to pre-Covid-19 levels, acknowledging “extraordinary circumstances.”
Other efforts by the Biden administration to alleviate strain on border communities are also meeting resistance. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, blocked attempts to provide federal funds for the testing, quarantining and isolating of migrants released from custody, arguing that the burden is on the federal government. Democratic lawmakers have asked Abbott to reconsider.

Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas told CNN she’s in ongoing discussions with the administration to find a workaround. “We’ve been writing every avenue on a whiteboard possible. It is so incredibly frustrating that human capital and resources are being spent on trying to work around a governor’s intent,” Escobar said.

CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Geneva Sands contributed to this report.

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