US official calls large shelter for migrant kids a ‘model’

POMONA, Calif. — Biden administration officials and lawmakers on Friday toured an emergency shelter that the government opened to house children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone, with the head of the agency caring for migrant kids calling the California facility a model among its large-scale sites, some of which have plagued by complaints.

“It is not easy to stand something up like this quickly, and do it right, but I think you can see that this is a place where kids can be healthy and safe,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters outside the shelter, which is housing nearly 1,400 children at the Los Angeles County fairgrounds in the city of Pomona.

Becerra said of the facility: “We consider this a model.”

The visit is Becerra’s second such tour in a week to one of the temporary facilities set up by the government this spring as tens of thousands of children, mostly fleeing violence in Central America, crossed the border alone. Of the 14 centers that opened, two have been shuttered because they did not meet government standards; others have been closing as more children are released to family in the U.S. or to facilities with higher levels of care.

While the emergency shelters are widely considered an improvement over border holding facilities packed with kids, the Biden administration is facing increasing pressure to address concerns that migrant children have been languishing in the unlicensed sites rather than being quickly reunited with their families in the United States, causing anxiety and panic attacks.

Friday’s tour comes days after Becerra, whose agency is in charge of caring for migrant children, visited the government’s largest shelter at Fort Bliss Army base near El Paso, Texas, which child welfare advocates say has been particularly problematic.

Advocates say the facilities were meant to be a safe place to house children for a couple of weeks to give the government time to contact and vet their relatives. Those without family in the United States are supposed to be sent to a state-licensed facility.

As of this week, the average stay at the temporary shelters was 37 days, with the network of facilities filled at just over half its capacity, according to Health and Human Services data obtained by the AP.

More than half of the 5,300 children at emergency shelters have close family in the U.S. such as a parent or grandparent. No such contact was identified for a third of the youth at those sites, the data showed.

The Pomona shelter is among the better large-scale facilities, advocates say. It has scaled up in recent weeks from about 500 children to the nearly 1,400 kids housed there Friday, including boys and girls.

Immigration attorney Karina Ramos of Immigrant Defenders Law Center in California visits twice a week, getting escorted with her colleagues to a building where they can meet with the children, who tell them the conditions are better than at the freezing-cold border facilities.

“The number one question is: ‘When am I going home?’” she said, which is “obviously understandable.”

Ramos said the children spend time learning English, doing art and playing outdoors and generally don’t have complaints about the Pomona shelter.

“This is definitely not Fort Bliss,” Ramos said. “Children are generally active, and they’re happy, and they come talk to us.”

In transcripts of interviews done by attorneys from March to early June and filed in federal court in Los Angeles, more than a dozen migrant children described their desperation to get out of the emergency facilities. In one account, a teenage girl said she had been at Fort Bliss for nearly 60 days and could hardly sleep because the lights were always on and she resorted to eating only popsicles and juice because the food was foul.

Becerra said conditions have improved in recent weeks with additional spiritual, recreational, educational and mental health services. The Fort Bliss shelter also was being reconfigured to a more child-friendly pod system with single cots instead of doubles. More case workers have been added, speeding up the process to reunify families.

Because of the progress, Becerra said the number of children his agency is caring for has dropped from a high of more than 22,000 to just over 14,400, with more than half at licensed shelters. Health and Human Services said it will close four emergency facilities this summer.

Pomona and Fort Bliss are among the sites that will remain open as unaccompanied children continue to cross the border.

The Trump administration imposed a public health order during the coronavirus pandemic to turn back adults seeking asylum. The Biden administration kept the rule in place but allowed minors crossing alone to remain in the U.S. to pursue asylum.

Watson reported from San Diego.