WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials have insisted that they have gotten better control of a surge of migrant children that has swamped detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But documents obtained by The New York Times indicate that the problem has moved to other facilities, like convention centers in Dallas, San Diego and Long Beach, Calif., which are nearing capacity as funds for more space are scarce.
The migrant children are far better cared for at the new facilities, operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, than they were at crammed jails run by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, according to administration officials. But health department officials are taking about a month on average to move the children and teenagers out of government custody and into the care of a family member or sponsor in the United States.
The White House this week allowed the Department of Health and Human Services to redirect $850 million to migrant care, according to an internal document dated May 6. Another nearly $850 million could be available in the coming weeks. Before that transfer was completed, the administration estimated that it would need another $4 billion before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, according to the document.
In all, over the past week, more than 21,000 children were living in shelters under government care, leaving the shelters around 80 percent full. A shelter at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas has a capacity of 2,270 — and a caseload of 1,990. The San Diego Convention Center’s 1,450 beds are all taken. The Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio is 90 children away from its 2,100 limit and announced on Friday it would stop taking in migrant children after this month. The Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center is similarly full, according to the document.
According to the document, a $366 million shortfall hits this month “and grows quickly through July.” Officials project the cost for the entire 2021 fiscal year could be higher than $8 billion.
Biden administration officials have framed their response to the migrant surge as a triumph of governmental logistics. In a matter of weeks, the administration was able to set up a dozen additional facilities to house and care for these children who, during March and much of April, were arriving alone by the thousands and forced to stay in overcrowded Border Patrol facilities, sleeping on gym mats with foil sheets, often without bathing.
Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, visited the border this week to tour the department’s far less crowded facilities, which were originally intended to hold adults caught trying to enter the country without proper documentation. The department broadcast before-and-after photographs showing the progress that had been made in moving the children out.
“We have re-engineered the process for the treatment of unaccompanied children — the transfer of them to Health and Human Services shelters where they belong,” Mr. Mayorkas said Friday when he spoke to Border Patrol agents in Donna, Texas. “A Border Patrol station is no place for a child.”
But the Biden administration has yet to solve one of the more troubling bottlenecks in the system at the border: quickly and safely releasing the minors from the shelters to vetted sponsors in the United States. The process is a balance of making sure the children are released to safe situations as well as trying to minimize the time they spend in government custody, said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the chief executive of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
The Biden administration has also said many sponsors feared coming forward to claim minors after a Trump-era program required the health department to share background information on all adults in a child’s prospective household with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. President Biden has rescinded the program.
On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services said, the time in government custody has improved significantly from an average of 42 days when Mr. Biden took office to the current stay of about a month. On Thursday, 775 children were released from government care, which is about 300 more than were being released last week. But officials at the border report a need for more case managers to help move the children out of government custody, even as federal employees from other agencies have already been deployed to fill in the gaps.
The Department of Health and Human Services also said that there was no immediate risk of running out of money to care for the migrant children. The additional $850 million the program received this week, the department said, was to cover pandemic-related costs for testing and other precautions. And the need for additional funds was not a new problem, the department said, and it pointed to a nearly $3 billion request in 2019 from the Trump administration when there was a similar influx in migrants.
“The Unaccompanied Children program has long relied on funding transfers to meet its mission, and this year faces the additional expense of rebuilding a decimated system while taking pandemic-related safety precautions, such as testing and social distancing,” Mark Weber, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement on Friday.
Mr. Biden blames the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies for leaving his team ill equipped to handle the migrant surge this spring. When migrants — mostly from Central America who were fleeing poverty, violence and natural disasters — started to arrive at the southwestern border in large numbers, the government did not have enough shelters to safely house children who arrived alone.
The Biden administration so far has not asked Congress for an emergency spending bill, which could distract from Senate Democrats’ efforts to pass immigration legislation. A 2019 request for more funding for the situation at the border set off a bitter fight in Congress, and a new request would most likely fuel criticism from Republicans who have made clear that they intend to seize on Mr. Biden’s border policies to galvanize their party’s base before the midterm elections
“It’s politics. It’s not about substance or process. If the government needs money to manage the border, they should get money to manage the border,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, the director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “It’s an emergency. It wasn’t planned or in the budget that they would have record numbers of unaccompanied kids.”
On Friday, Representative Nanette Barragán, Democrat of California and the chairwoman of the House homeland security subcommittee on border security, toured the shelter at the convention center in Long Beach and said the Biden administration was providing minors with much more humane conditions in the health department facilities than they had while in Border Patrol custody, where she said youths slept on mats on the ground and lacked medical care.
“Let’s get the kids out of Border Patrol custody as quickly as possible,” Ms. Barragán said in an interview after touring the shelter, which housed 728 migrant children, with room for only 72 more. “In the H.H.S. custody, even in the emergency centers, they have medical staff, they have beds, they have television, they have activities.”
Even so, she said she was “concerned” with data showing that the program was in need of more money in the coming months.
“Make no mistake,” Ms. Barragán said, “there are things we need to work on.”
Migrant surges in the spring are typical, but this year has brought record numbers.
While previous administrations focused on expanding the number of facilities run by border agents, the Biden administration has pivoted by spending money on developing temporary shelters in convention centers, military sites and vacant arenas.
“The administration is qualitatively looking at this response to this migration event in a different way,” said Cris Ramón, an immigration consultant based in Washington.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Mr. Biden promised that the United States would return to being a compassionate destination for migrants, a sharp contrast with the harsh policies put in place by President Donald J. Trump, who used an emergency public health rule to turn children away. Mr. Biden has committed to allowing these children to enter the country.
And housing the migrant children is not the only challenge on the border for the Biden administration.
The United States has also been increasingly allowing migrant families to enter the country because of new barriers to sheltering families in Mexico. As a result, the administration has struggled to find space for them and has turned to housing them in hotels before releasing them into the country.
The administration is expected to expand the number of hotels holding families this weekend, according to a senior homeland security official, a sign of the potential increase in crossings by migrants in the near future.