U.S. expands effort to allow in vulnerable migrants at Mexico border

By Kristina Cooke, Mica Rosenberg and Ted Hesson

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The United States has begun rolling out a new system to identify and admit the most vulnerable migrants at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to three people briefed on the matter.

The new system, which started at the port of entry in El Paso, Texas, this week, creates a more formal process that allows pre-screened asylum seekers to enter the United States on humanitarian grounds, despite a broad policy of expulsions at the border.

The expulsion policy was put in place under former Republican President Donald Trump in March 2020 citing public health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. President Joe Biden has not revoked it.

By next week, the effort to streamline exemptions is expected to expand to other Texas ports in Brownsville, Laredo and Hidalgo, as well as in Nogales, Arizona, U.S. officials said on a call with advocates on Wednesday, according to two people familiar with the discussion.

As of Wednesday, roughly two dozen migrants had been admitted through the program, the two sources said, and the number of people allowed to enter going forward will depend on capacity to safely process them at the ports. The numbers will likely be limited, however, because of the non-profit groups’ capacity to screen migrants who might be eligible.

The move illustrates the struggle Biden is facing – while his administration is declaring the southern border closed to hopeful migrants, the number of apprehensions has reached a 20-year high. Border patrol picked up nearly 170,000 migrants between ports of entry in March and made a similar number of arrests in April, according to two people briefed on preliminary figures.

Migrant advocates have pressured Biden to do more to allow in asylum seekers to submit asylum claims.

The new process tasks a handful of non-profits working in Mexico with identifying and referring the neediest asylum seekers to U.S. officials, including those with medical issues, the people briefed on the matter said.

Migrants who have experienced long periods of displacement, sexual minorities and victims of crime, trafficking and sexual violence will also be among those considered for the program.

Those approved through the process will be given COVID-19 tests and a date and time to go to a port of entry. They will be released into the United States and given a notice to appear in immigration court to present their asylum claims.

A State Department spokesperson said on Wednesday that the “border remains closed” but that the government was working to streamline the system to identify and lawfully process “particularly vulnerable individuals who warrant humanitarian exception under the order.”

A spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the United States requested the agency channel U.S. funds to the non-profit groups involved.

EXPULSIONS CONTINUE

Biden early on in his presidency exempted unaccompanied children from the Trump-era expulsions order, issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and known as Title 42. But his administration has continued to expel tens of thousands of single adults and some families.

The expulsions have left many migrants stranded in dangerous border cities in Mexico. Since Biden took office, the non-profit group Human Rights First has documented at least 492 violent attacks, including rapes and kidnappings of migrants blocked from entry under the policy.

The new system builds on admissions that have been happening in recent weeks through the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of several organizations that sued the U.S. government to end the expulsions policy.

Since late March, the ACLU has been able to get up to 35 families per day admitted at ports of entry along the border and expects to continue its process in parallel with efforts from other non-profit groups.

Advocates, however, say they are dismayed that Biden has left the border expulsion policy in place, even with exceptions, arguing that it cuts off access to the U.S. asylum process.

“It’s just a continuation of a process that’s illegal at the end of the day,” said Eleanor Acer, senior director of refugee protection with Human Rights First.

(Reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Mica Rosenberg in New York and Ted Hesson in Washington D.C., editing by Ross Colvin and Aurora Ellis)

U.S. to set aside 6,000 guest worker visas for Central Americans – sources

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration plans to set aside 6,000 seasonal guest worker visas for people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to two sources familiar with the matter, a small step toward establishing more legal pathways to the United States from the region.

The 6,000-visa allotment would be part of an additional 22,000 H-2B visas made available to employers in the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, a U.S. official and a second person familiar with the matter said.

The increase has been sought by business groups but opposed by labor unions amid high unemployment related to the coronavirus pandemic.

President Joe Biden has grappled in recent months with a rising number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, including families and unaccompanied children. In March, about 85,000 of the 172,000 migrants caught at the border came from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Biden officials have urged migrants not to travel to the border while systems are established that allow them to seek asylum from their home countries or come to the United States through other legal pathways.

The extra H-2B visas would be in addition to the annual allotment of 66,000 visas for the fiscal year, a tally that was exhausted in February. The visas are used for landscaping, food processing and hotel work, among other seasonal jobs.

If the 6,000 visas are not used by companies seeking to hire people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, they would go back to the general visa pool sometime before Sept. 30, the two people familiar with the matter said.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)

Despite Biden claim, most migrant families not being expelled to Mexico

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. border agents expelled roughly a third of migrant parents and children traveling together and caught crossing the southwestern border in March, according to U.S. government data, undercutting a claim by President Joe Biden that most families are being sent back to Mexico.

About 17,000 of the nearly 53,000 parents and children caught at the border in March were expelled under a COVID-related public health order known as Title 42, an administration official said during a background briefing with reporters on Wednesday.

The rest were placed in U.S. immigration proceedings, in keeping with the practice before Title 42, which was implemented under former President Donald Trump in March 2020.

“We’re sending back the vast majority of the families that are coming,” Biden said during a March 25 news conference. “We’re trying to work out now, with Mexico, their willingness to take more of those families back.”

Commenting on the apparent disconnect between Biden’s statement and the latest figures, White House spokesman Vedant Patel said the administration’s policy is to expel single adults and families to Mexico under Title 42 if they are caught crossing the southwest border illegally, but he added that does not always happen.

“In the event that Mexico is not able to receive an individual or a family, they are placed in immigration proceedings in the United States,” he said in a statement.

Biden has defended his administration’s handling of a rise in border crossings in recent months. Republicans have criticized Biden, a Democrat, for easing some Trump-era restrictions, arguing his policies have encouraged illegal immigration. Biden and his top officials have blamed Trump for dismantling systems to receive asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors.

Overall, more than 172,000 migrants were caught at the U.S.-Mexico border in March, according to the administration official. Of those arrests, roughly 168,000 people were picked up by border patrol agents between ports of entry – the highest monthly tally since March 2001, when nearly 171,000 were caught.

Reuters reported similar preliminary border arrest figures last week.

For much of last year, unaccompanied children arriving at the border were expelled to Mexico under Title 42, but Biden exempted them from the expulsions in February.

Since then, a rising number of unaccompanied children have been taken into custody at the border and allowed into the United States to pursue immigration cases. The increase has caused crowded conditions in border stations and processing centers.

In March, border agents caught about 19,000 unaccompanied children attempting to cross the border, the administration official said on Wednesday, up from roughly 6,000 in January.

The administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss the border figures with reporters, said the expulsion of families back to Mexico is limited by Mexico’s ability to receive them in the state of Tamaulipas, which sits across from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where many families have been arriving.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose; Editing by Ross Colvin and Aurora Ellis)

U.S. caught the most migrants in two decades at U.S.-Mexico border in March

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. authorities caught more than 171,000 migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico in March, according to preliminary data shared with Reuters, the highest monthly total in two decades and the latest sign of the mounting humanitarian challenge confronting President Joe Biden.

The preliminary March arrest totals at the U.S.-Mexico border represent the highest monthly level since April 2000, when border patrol agents caught more than 180,000 migrants.

The total includes about 19,000 unaccompanied migrant children and 53,000 family members traveling together, the figures show. Single adults made up roughly 99,000 of the total.

The Biden administration is struggling to house newly arrived unaccompanied children, who are exempted from expulsion under a COVID-19 health order known as Title 42. Children have been backed up in crowded border stations and processing centers for days.

The shelter system that houses the children has been overwhelmed and U.S. officials have scrambled in recent weeks to open emergency shelters, including sites in convention centers in Dallas and San Diego.

Central American and Mexican migrants have made up the bulk of arrivals in recent months, in keeping with trends in recent years.

The March figures show a 178% increase in the number of migrant families caught at the border compared with last month.

While Biden said last week that the “vast majority” of families are being sent back to Mexico under Title 42, U.S. government data suggests that is not the case.

More than half of the 19,000 family members caught at the border in February were not expelled, according to public U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data, with many released into the United States to pursue immigration court cases.

Reuters also obtained three daily U.S. border enforcement reports in March that showed only 14-16% of family members were expelled on those days.

A CBP spokesman said official statistics would likely be released next week and declined to comment further.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokeswoman Sarah Peck said last week that given fluctuating migration flows, “one day or week of statistics doesn’t reflect the full picture.”

Peck said the department’s policy is still to expel families “and in situations where expulsion is not possible due to Mexico’s inability to receive the families, they are placed into removal proceedings.”

U.S. border agents have encountered more repeat crossers in the past year compared with recent years.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Howard Goller)

Honduran migrant boy, 4, found traveling alone by U.S.-Mexico border

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – A four-year-old Honduran boy was found traveling alone near to the Rio Grande river that separates Mexico from the United States with no one to claim him, the Mexican government said on Wednesday.

Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) said the boy was found unaccompanied among trees and thickets as he walked towards the border. He was close to Reynosa, a Mexican city long troubled by violence, that sits across from McAllen, Texas.

A group of three mothers and six children were located in the same area, but none of the adults took responsibility for the boy or acknowledged him as a relative, the INM said.

The migrants, all Hondurans, were detained when a flyover of the area spotted a group of women and children running and ducking for cover in grasslands and trees, the institute said.

The boy, who was not named, is one of thousands of children to have arrived at the border during a jump in arrivals since U.S. President Joe Biden took office.

Consular authorities and Mexico’s national human rights commission were informed of the boy’s situation, the INM said.

The ten migrants were taken into the custody of a local branch of a Mexican authority dedicated to family welfare.

Mexico’s government says people smugglers recommend migrants take children with them on their journey from Central America to make it easier to apply for asylum in the United States.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Diego Ore; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Migrant caravan of hundreds departs in Honduras for United States

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Several hundred Hondurans set off for the Guatemalan border on Tuesday, seeking to reach the United States to escape the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters, according to local media and a Reuters witness.

The group of migrants was the second large caravan to set out from Honduras this year, on the heels of catastrophic flooding in November from hurricanes Eta and Iota, which battered an economy that was already seriously struggling.

Central Americans have made up the bulk of a sharp increase in migrants trying to reach the United States via Mexico in recent weeks, putting pressure on U.S. President Joe Biden. The crisis includes the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied children who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.

The migrant caravan in Honduras, mostly young adults with backpacks and women carrying children, began walking in the early morning from a bus terminal in the northern city of San Pedro Sula to the town of Corinto at the Guatemalan border.

“You have to take risks to have a better life in the United States, in Honduras we’re never going to do anything,” migrant Carlos Flores told a local television station. “Here you can hardly eat with what you earn, if you can even find work.”

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Republicans plan Senate floor ‘fireworks’ over surge at U.S.-Mexico border

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans plan to take their opposition to President Joe Biden’s border policies to the U.S. Senate floor on Wednesday, attempting to move legislation that promises to tie up the chamber for hours, a source familiar with the matter said.

At least five Senate Republicans are expected to seek unanimous consent for a series of measures targeting Biden’s decision to reverse the border policies of former President Donald Trump, including a resolution labeling the current border situation a “crisis.”

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the actions could lead to some rhetorical “fireworks” on the Senate floor if Democrats block the measures, as expected. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office was not immediately available to comment on Democratic plans.

The anticipated actions are part of a mounting effort by Republicans in the Senate and the House of Representatives to pressure Biden and his fellow Democrats over a new flood of migrants, including unaccompanied children, to the U.S.-Mexico border. Republicans see an opportunity to retaliate against Democrats, who sharply criticized Trump’s border policies, ahead of the 2022 congressional elections.

A sharp rise in the number of migrants fleeing violence, natural disasters and economic hardship in Central America is testing Biden’s commitment to a more humane immigration policy than his predecessor’s.

Republicans say Biden’s decision to reverse Trump’s policies has given migrants an incentive to take the journey north and contend it poses health and security risks for American citizens.

Republicans are moving to capitalize on what Reuters/Ipsos polling shows to be an increasingly hostile attitude toward illegal immigrants among party voters. A Morning Consult poll released on Wednesday also showed that 48% of Democrats believe the United States is facing a “problem” with illegal immigration.

Details about the Republican measures to be offered on Wednesday were not immediately available. But the source said the effort could consume the Senate floor for up to three hours.

Biden was due to meet with immigration advisers and top Cabinet officials on Wednesday, while dispatching White House officials to a Texas resettlement facility as pressure mounts over a recent jump in migrant arrivals at the U.S. border.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. facing biggest migrant surge in 20 years: Homeland Security

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is facing the biggest surge of migrants at its southwestern border in 20 years, the homeland security secretary said on Tuesday as the Biden administration races to handle an influx of children trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border alone.

The number of attempted border crossings by people from Central America and Mexico has steadily increased since April 2020 and most single adults and families are being turned away, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.

Poverty, violence and corruption in the Mexico and the Northern Triangle – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – have led people to seek a better life in the United States for years, and there have been surges in the past.

Conditions there have continued to deteriorate and two hurricanes made living conditions even worse, while the coronavirus pandemic complicated the border situation, Mayorkas said in a statement.

“We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years,” he said.

U.S. border agents conducted 100,441 apprehensions or expulsions of migrants at the border with Mexico in February, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said last week, the highest monthly total since a border crisis of 2019.

Single adults make up the majority of people who are being expelled, Mayorkas said. Children traveling alone, some as young as six years old, are not being turned back.

The government is creating a joint processing center to transfer the children promptly into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and is trying to find additional shelters for them, Mayorkas said in a statement.

President Joe Biden’s administration has been struggling to speed up the processing of hundreds of youths under 18 who are crossing the southern border alone every day.

Republicans in Congress say the Biden administration sparked the border surge by promising to unwind some of former President Donald Trump’s hardline policies against illegal immigration.

“It didn’t have to happen. This crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration,” House of Representatives Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said at an El Paso border facility on Monday.

Republicans in turn were criticized by Democrats for their own immigration record, as well as Trump’s policies.

Nearly 4,300 unaccompanied children were being held by Border Patrol officials as of Sunday, according to an agency official who requested anonymity. By law, the children should be transferred out of Customs and Border Protection facilities to HHS-run shelters within 72 hours.

In the short term, the federal government is setting up additional facilities in Texas and Arizona to shelter unaccompanied children and families, and is working with Mexico to increase its capacity to receive expelled families, Mayorkas said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Ted Hesson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Alistair Bell)

As Biden winds down Mexico program, many migrants on U.S. border left in limbo

By Mimi Dwyer

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden has moved swiftly to start dismantling a cornerstone of former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policy, a program that sent thousands of asylum seekers back to Mexico to await their immigration court hearings.

Biden’s focus on ending the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – under which 65,000 migrants were sent back to Mexico – fulfills a key election campaign promise, but it leaves thousands of migrants not in the program unsure of their fate, migrants, attorneys and activists told Reuters.

Some of those migrants not in the program have been waiting along the U.S.-Mexico border longer than those who were enrolled in MPP after they were caught crossing the border illegally. Now, migrants with active MPP cases are eligible to claim asylum in the United States. The exact number of non-MPP asylum seekers along the border is not clear because there is no single record of them, but advocates say there could be thousands.

The president’s focus on MPP is not surprising – it was one of Trump’s most controversial immigration policies, and Biden denounced it on the campaign trail.

Trump said the program aimed to curb the release of thousands of migrants who had entered the United States to claim asylum. But migrant groups said many of those people were forced to live in squalor in Mexico and were vulnerable to violence, including kidnappings and extortion.

In the rush to get rid of the program, attorneys and activists say one unintended effect is that non-MPP asylum seekers who have spent months and even years at the border have been left in limbo. Advocates are now pressing the U.S. government to allow these asylum seekers entry into the United States to make their claims.

The issue highlights the challenges facing the Biden administration as it seeks to reform immigration policies, while also emphasizing that not everyone who comes to the border will be granted asylum.

Republicans and critics have coalesced around the message that Biden has implemented an open-border policy. Biden officials, however, are discouraging migrants from making their way to the United States, stating that the majority of people who arrive will be turned away.

The White House referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security, which said in a statement that the “system to process individuals with active MPP cases is the first phase of a program to restore safe and orderly processing at the southwest border.”

It declined to elaborate on when or if asylum seekers without active MPP cases would be allowed to claim asylum in the United States.

‘THE LIST’

Angeles, a Nicaraguan mother of two who asked that Reuters use her middle name for her safety, is one of the asylum seekers not in MPP.

She has been waiting with her family in the Mexican city of Tijuana for 15 months after fleeing her country for political persecution.

Afraid of kidnappings, the family rarely goes outside their home and struggles to buy basic necessities like food. Her husband works as a mechanic in exchange for a room for his family. Angeles’ children, aged 15 and 7, are not in school, and her eldest son is sleeping poorly.

Despite her family’s difficult situation, Angeles says she wants to enter the United States legally. In November 2019, she added her family to “La Lista,” – The List – an informal, handwritten book maintained by migrants on the Mexican side of the border. Administrators recorded the names of thousands of migrants and gave them numbers as they waited their turn to make asylum claims to U.S. officials.

She and her family got two numbers – 4,465 and 4,466 – on two scraps of paper. For more than a year, that has been their only clue about when they could enter the country.

La Lista was borne out of another policy embraced by Trump called “metering,” which limited how many migrants could seek asylum each day at U.S. ports of entry. The Strauss Center, a University of Texas research organization, estimates that 9,600 people were on La Lista in Tijuana alone up until it closed in March 2020, though it is not clear how many of those people are still at the border.

But Angeles’ family never got called. After the COVID-19 outbreak, the United States sealed the southern border to the vast majority of asylum seekers. Angeles doesn’t know whether her family’s numbers mean anything anymore.

“I just want an answer, for them to tell me, ‘Look, come present yourself on this day,’ even if they interviewed me and gave me a number and told me to come back,” Angeles said. “But I have nothing.”

“There’s basically almost no access to asylum for people who are not in the MPP program,” said Ginger Cline, a lawyer who represents migrants in Tijuana with Al Otro Lado, an immigration nonprofit group. “It’s an issue because there are now thousands of people who are waiting in dangerous border cities who don’t have access to basic needs.”

BLACK MIGRANTS FACE UNCERTAINTY

Tijuana also has a large population of Haitian migrants as well as migrants who traveled from Africa. They are particularly vulnerable to extortion and racism, migrants and advocates say. They, too, have been left in limbo as MPP was mostly limited to Spanish-speaking asylum seekers.

“The situation is really difficult for those of African descent,” said Katerine Giron, an organizer with Espacio Migrante, a migrant community organization in Tijuana.

The Biden administration “has not done anything for Black immigrants except continuing the cruel and inhumane system that existed before Trump but heightened under Trump,” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an activist group which provides humanitarian assistance to migrants along the border and in the United States.

The group estimates there are about 5,000 Black immigrants in Tijuana, and 10,000-15,000 border-wide.

The White House and DHS did not respond to questions about how its approach to unwinding MPP is affecting Black migrants.

In the absence of clarity from the U.S. government, hundreds of asylum seekers have begun camping near the port of entry in Tijuana, hoping to make their asylum claims.

The camp has swelled to about 1,500 people since mid-February, said Alex Mensing, a Tijuana-based immigration advocate with Innovation Law Lab who is part of a coalition that has been trying to help migrants coming to the port of entry.

The expansion of the camp comes as U.S. officials have declared that the swift processing of MPP claimants has allowed Mexico to close the sprawling Matamoros camp on the border that was the most visible symbol of Trump’s crackdown on migration from Central America.

Mensing’s group had counted 241 tents at the port as of Tuesday. Many people camping out do not have active MPP cases but have spent more than a year at the border.

“There’s almost universally this idea that it doesn’t make sense to let some asylum seekers in and not others,” Mensing said. “They do not see that as fair.”

(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer; editing by Ross Colvin and Aurora Ellis)

Analysis: Facing critics, Biden boxed in with few options for influx of migrant children

By Ted Hesson and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is racing to deal with an increasing number of migrant children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it has limited options and “none are great,” one U.S. official said.

The influx, which comes as Biden relaxes some of former President Donald Trump’s more restrictive immigration policies, has left the Democratic president facing criticism not only from opposition Republicans but also members of his own party, who say some children are being held in custody for too long.

Biden’s administration, however, faces legal, space and cost constraints as it tries first to house and then speed the release of thousands of children coming over the border.

Under U.S. law, federal health officials are required to provide housing and care for unaccompanied migrant children until they can be placed with a parent or other sponsor, but they have limited bed space in state-licensed facilities to do so.

If the number of children arriving without a parent or legal guardian continues to rise, officials will have to expand emergency housing, start a time-consuming process to open more licensed facilities or release children faster.

“We will have to make big and small changes,” the U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal operations, told Reuters. “(We are) assessing options now because none are great.”

Migrant children are supposed to be transferred out of Border Patrol custody within 72 hours. But when shelter space is limited, they can get stuck in border detention centers for longer periods – as is happening now, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In 2019, migrant advocates raised concerns about hundreds of children – including toddlers – being detained without adequate food, clean clothes and diapers, toothbrushes or showers.

Robert Carey, who directed the refugee office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under former President Barack Obama, said changing the policies around housing children will not happen quickly “even if they are putting a tremendous amount of effort into it.”

“It’s a Herculean task,” he said.

CHALLENGES

Biden is already running up against some of the same issues that vexed previous administrations.

One example of complications facing the president – U.S. health officials on Friday lifted coronavirus-related restrictions that cut federal shelter capacity by 40% and maxed-out bed space.

The relaxation of the restrictions boosted capacity to about 13,000, with 8,100 children in government custody as of Monday. But beds are filling up quickly.

While officials acknowledge that allowing more children into the shelters will raise the risk of more COVID-19 cases, the administration says it has little choice, since it takes so long to open new facilities.

Long-term shelters need state licensing that complies with local child welfare laws, a process that could take up to a year and can be hamstrung by local opposition from both critics of detention centers and anti-immigration groups.

Emergency influx shelters can be erected more quickly on federal properties, and the Biden administration is surveying agencies to see what options might be available, including military bases.

Finding adequate federally controlled land or buildings that can be made available and converted for children in a short amount of time is a challenge, said Mark Greenberg, a former top official at HHS, which oversees the shelters.

Greenberg worked at the department during a 2014 surge in unaccompanied minors.

“We spent a lot of time to trying to identify other federal properties that might be available in the future,” he said of the efforts. “Most agencies did not have property to offer.”

The best option would be smaller-scale shelters or foster homes, but finding and opening those sorts of spaces are longer-term projects, according to Leah Chavla, a senior policy adviser with the New York City-based Women’s Refugee Commission.

OUT FASTER

One way to lessen the need for housing is to speed up the release of children to U.S. sponsors – something Biden has asked about in meetings, according to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

But move too fast and predators may try to take advantage of the system, according to former HHS officials. In 2013 and 2014, for example, some Guatemalan teenagers were released and then forced to work on an egg farm in Ohio.

“We need to take the time to vet the individuals who these kids are being connected with,” Psaki told MSNBC on Tuesday. “We’re trying to figure out how to expedite this process.”

Some measures are already being put in place, but the moves are unlikely to have a significant effect on the housing crunch if the number of children arriving keeps rising.

U.S. officials are now sending unaccompanied children to shelters in the interior of the country instead of automatically quarantining them for 14 days near the border, according to a person familiar with the decision. They are also streamlining background checks of sponsors by moving to a new database system.

Cecilia Munoz, a top White House official dealing with immigration issues under Obama, said handling unaccompanied minors at the border will be one of the biggest challenges for the Biden administration, which she said inherited problems caused by Trump’s border policies.

“I’ve lived through my own version of this,” Munoz said. If “you have hundreds of kids in Border Patrol lock ups, and they can’t stay there, you have few options and your options are more expensive.”

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, editing by Ross Colvin and Aurora Ellis)