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Border & Immigration

'No Easy Answer': Biden Vows To Take In Migrant Children, But Says Most Families Will Be Turned Away

FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2021, file photo president Joe Biden signs an executive order on immigration, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. The Biden administration is facing growing questions about why it wasn't more prepared for an influx of migrants at the southern border. The administration is scrambling to build up capacity to care for 14,000 young undocumented migrants now in federal custody — and more likely on the way. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2021, file photo president Joe Biden signs an executive order on immigration, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. The Biden administration is facing growing questions about why it wasn't more prepared for an influx of migrants at the southern border. The administration is scrambling to build up capacity to care for 14,000 young undocumented migrants now in federal custody — and more likely on the way. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

In the first press conference of his presidency on Thursday, President Joe Biden announced plans to fast-track the processing of migrant children out of federal shelters and blamed the influx of migrants arriving at the border on seasonal increases, not “because I’m a nice guy."

Biden said he would redirect U.S. Department of Health and Human Services staff to help children more quickly connect with family in the U.S.so they can be transferred out of overcrowded facilities.

He also reiterated his administration’s policy to only process migrants at the border who are under 18 and are traveling without a legal guardian. He did not address his continuance of Title 42 expulsions, which have essentially blocked access to asylum for adults and families arriving at the border who have legitimate claims to seek protection in the U.S..

Under former President Donald Trump, nearly all migrants were turned away during the pandemic under a public health code known as Title 42. Biden stopped expelling unaccompanied minors. Republicans have blamed Biden's rollback of part of that policy for the increased number of youth and families arriving at the border.

“The reason they're coming is that it's the time they can travel with the least likelihood of dying on the way because of the heat of the desert,” Biden said in the press conference.

Not all migrant families are being turned away. Some asylum seekers that were forced by the Trump administration to wait out their asylum proceedings in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) policy have also been reprocessed and allowed into the U.S. under Biden, to continue their cases.

But for families not in MPP, access into the U.S. has been unevenly applied with a some allowed into the country and others expelled. Recently, some families who entered south Texas have been flown to other border cities, including El Paso and San Diego, and then expelled back into Mexico.

In response to questions about the uneven Title 42 policy, Biden said families should be quickly turned away, but Mexico sometimes has not accepted them.

“They should all be going back,” he said. “The only people we're not going to let sitting there, on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children.” He added that “over 70%” of the migrant youth arriving without a legal guardian “are either 16 or 17 years old.”

He said his administration is in discussions with Mexico to ensure families can be expelled, but said he would not stop allowing unaccompanied children into the country, despite the challenges in sheltering them during the pandemic.

“No previous administrations did that either except Trump,” Biden said. “I'm not gonna do it.”

Biden went on to call cramped conditions in Customs and Border Protection facilities where children are being held “totally unacceptable.” He also confirmed that Fort Bliss in El Paso will be used to house 5,000 migrant children, which should help move kids more quickly out of border facilities that are supposed to house children for less than 72 hours, as outlined by official guidelines. Last week, NPR reported that some kids have been in border holding facilities for ten days, in part because there wasn’t available bed space in migrant shelters for children.

“So we're building back up to capacity that should have been maintained and built upon that Trump dismantled,” Biden said. “It's going to take time.”

Biden has faced criticism for the conditions reported in the different facilities housing migrant children, including emergency sites. In Texas alone, HHS has planned or announced at least eight temporary shelters.

Most recently, the federal agency has planned to use a vacant dormitory at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland and land on El Paso’s Fort Bliss to create more temporary shelters. HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement said it plans to use the Freeman Expo Center in San Antonio to hold up to 2,400 unaccompanied minors.

Some 11,500 children are in federally-funded shelters nationwide and nearly 5,000 children are waiting in Customs and Border Protection custody, according to federal Health and Human Services officials.

Though federal shelters have space for some 13,500 youth, COVID-19 protocols have diminished capacity.

KERA's Mallory Falk contributed to this story.
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