For a month, Meybelin lives in a huge convention center in the heart of San Diego. There, along with hundreds of other migrant children, she waits every day for a relative to be released from the United States, frequently calling her parents in El Salvador for the long wait.
Meybelin, 17, is one of more than 20,000 children in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services as a result of the record number of unaccompanied children and adolescents who arrived on the southern U.S. border this year. The Biden administration has struggled to help the department’s already tight resources and uses a lot of new places, such as convention centers, to accommodate minors.
Although the administration has focused on the rapid transfer of children from prison-like Border Patrol facilities, it now faces another daunting challenge: gathering an unprecedented number of children with relatives or guardians in the United States.
In more than 80% of cases, children who cross the U.S.-Mexico border alone have a family member in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security. But reaching out to relatives is a timely and often arduous process.
Officials have been confronted with the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border and its ramifications since the early days of the administration, as an increasing number of migrants arrived, especially children. The administration faced rapid criticism from both sides of the corridor for its handling of the border. Republicans adopted Biden’s immigration policies, arguing that they encouraged migrants to travel north, while immigrant advocates criticized officials for continuing to rely on a Trump-era policy that allows for expulsion. rape of single adults and families attempting to illegally cross the southern U.S. border.
On Thursday, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas testified before the Senate National Security Committee on the actions that have been taken to address the influx of minors on the U.S.-Mexico border.
For now, border arrests appear to have decreased, but obstacles remain. Federal documents obtained by CNN reveal the lack of the number of case managers needed at six temporary facilities, including the San Diego site, for the number of children cared for, as well as the continuing need to continue to increase bed capacity for to children.
For children, the reunification process can be dizzying. According to his family’s lawyer, Meybelin’s case has bounced back in front of various case managers, pushing back his release and raising concerns among his family and lawyer who say he suffers trauma after being attacked in El Salvador.
“What’s frustrating in this case is that there’s a natural brother, there’s a lawyer who knows what they’re doing. But we’re running. You’d expect that if you call Amazon about a lost package, but that’s a kid,” Kate said. Lincoln-Goldfinch, a Texas-based immigration lawyer, in reference to Meybelin’s older brother.
Meybelin’s parents, Jose and Mirna, spent about three weeks worrying about the location of their 17-year-old daughter who had fled her home country, El Salvador, to travel to the United States after she was reportedly found dead. attacked and the family threatened. CNN only uses their names for privacy reasons.
“It hurt,” Jose told CNN in Spanish, as he broke down crying. “My daughter is young. I don’t know if we’ll see her again. ”
Jose said he called the Refugee Resettlement Office hotline 24 hours a day to try to locate his daughter after she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. “We call every day. They said we could call 24 hours a day, ”he said.
Since Meybelin was moved to the San Diego Convention Center, they have been able to connect almost weekly, but only for about 10 minutes at a time.
The average time it takes to reunite a child with a sponsor is about 30 days, although officials try to shave time. DHS is participating in an interagency task force focused on bringing children together with their sponsors to identify what support they can provide, a senior National Security official told CNN.
Sponsors, such as parents, relatives, or guardians, must submit paperwork and undergo verification. Meanwhile, case managers collect a child’s data and help them reunite with a sponsor in the U.S. But in some cases, young children may arrive with little or no information to identify them.
“[The reunification process] it is extremely complicated and there have been other children we meet who did not come with any information about their families. In these cases, case administrators must act as detectives, ”said Lindsay Toczylowski, a Los Angeles-based immigration lawyer who works primarily with children staying at the Long Beach Convention Center.
Just this week, a baby found on the Texas-Mexico border with four other youths had a phone number written with a marker on the diaper.
Once children meet with their sponsors, they still have to go through their immigration procedures, which can take months, if not years. Many apply for asylum in the US. But ultimately, it is up to an immigration judge to decide whether a child will remain in the U.S. or be deported to their home country.
Fleeing the dangers in Latin America
Dangerous conditions in Latin America are one of the factors contributing to migration to the US. The region was also hit by two devastating hurricanes last year and continues to take root in the coronavirus pandemic, as Covid-19 cases and deaths have risen and the economies projected to grow have been decimated.
In April, U.S. Customs and Border Protection captured 17,171 unaccompanied children on the U.S.-Mexico border, below March, but still higher than in previous years, according to the latest agency data. .
RELATED: Border encounters reach a maximum of two decades in April, although the number of unaccompanied children falls
Juana Cuyuch Brito’s 16-year-old sister crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in early March after fleeing Guatemala due to the devastation left by last year’s hurricanes. Her sister, Lydia, was in the custody of the Border Patrol for at least a week, until she was transferred to HHS custody when they were finally able to talk on the phone, Cuyuch said. Her sister is now staying at an HHS shelter in Pennsylvania, which is still waiting to be released.
One of the main challenges in reuniting children with their sponsor is case management services, given the large number of children in custody. The consequence: children stay in shelters longer.
Lincoln-Goldfinch is the co-founder of Neighbor, a nonprofit, a family reunification project launched in conjunction with the Lifeline Project to help parents get through the process in hopes of reducing the time to reunite. if. “What these families have chosen to do is safer than the alternative and the wait, lack of information, lack of communication and delays in release is absolutely painful for these families and these children,” he said. to say.
Neha Desai, director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Law, echoed these concerns: “Our team has spoken to numerous sponsors over the past few months and they have been overwhelmed, confused and frustrated. Some of the sponsors had been waiting for weeks to receive news from a case manager and had not yet received any calls. Others had received an initial call, but there was no explanation about the steps in the process, clear expectations of the timeline or the reasons for the delays, ”he said.
Nathan Bult, senior vice president of public and government affairs at Bethany Christian Services, which works directly with unaccompanied children, stressed the role of case managers and the stress they face. “In Bethany programs, which are licensed for each state we are in, our case managers have a number of cases set by the license. The ratios are meant to prevent them from being overwhelmed. But they are definitely stressed, ”added Bult.
More than 350 people from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a DHS agency, help with case management. The administration, according to officials to reporters last week, is improving some case management processes and updating policies to quickly unify children with verified sponsors. This includes implementing virtual case management, training additional case managers, and accelerating the release of children to parents or guardians.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, an HHS agency, says the process of identifying parents living in the U.S. while children are in custody at CBP has also begun.
In recent days, HHS has discharged more than 500 children almost daily, according to government data, which indicate progress as the number of children in custody in the department decreases.