Alarming Reports Regarding Poor Conditions of Detained Migrant Children in Biden Administration Emergency Shelters

Immigration Policy Brief #127 | By: Kathryn Baron | August 17, 2021

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Policy Summary

As of early August 2021, nearly a third of migrant children detained in government custody are being held in emergency shelters. Migrant teens are housed in long trailers with little space for recreation, and some reports allege they have to wash their clothes in bathroom sinks and occasionally endure bouts of food poisoning. Some reports have circulated that even children kept in facilities for more than 2 months, do not receive clean bedding and clothes. A lawyer with a Texan nonprofit organization that offers pro-bono legal services to migrants stated children he met with felt “confined, distressed and like they are being punished.”

The average stay time has fluctuated between 2 weeks and a month, with some closer to 60 days. There are not enough case managers to accelerate the process of safely releasing detained migrant children. In some of the larger emergency shelters, like Fort Bliss in Texas, tent camps are overcrowded and distraught. Immigration advocates express concerns for detained children’s mental health and risk of contracting COVID-19.

Unaccompanied migrant children are defined as migrants below the age of 18 who do not have lawful status in the US and no parent or legal guardian to care for them. This does not necessarily mean they entered the US alone; minors who are separated from their families and/or abandoned by fellow migrants or human smugglers at the border may also be deemed unaccompanied minors.

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the first federal agency to handle these cases. DHS is primarily responsible for 1) apprehension, 2) processing, and if necessary, 3) deportation. Once minors are deemed unaccompanied, Health and Human Services (HHS) becomes responsible for them throughout their time in federal custody. They are placed in transition camps until a judge has determined whether there entry into the U.S. is legally justifiable.

If so they are  placed in group homes, foster care, and/or federal facilities (state-licensed, federally funded independent, and emergency unlicensed influx) to provide education, social, health and legal services. The USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ) rules on asylum cases while the Justice Department handles other immigration cases.

If a migrant child loses, they are deported by ICE to their country of origin; if a child wins, they may legally stay in the US; and if a child becomes a legal adult while their case processes, they may be released or detained in adult facilities for the remainder of their court proceedings. There are currently about 17,000 migrant children in federal custody right now, a huge spike from the 120 at the beginning of the pandemic (March 2020).

Policy Analysis

Contractors are employed to oversee and monitor the camps – with little to no training in childcare or guidance regarding their roles. These contractors are responsible for monitoring large tents, sometimes with up to 1,500 children. In practice, what they do is more aligned with crowd control than youth care. Many of these contractors also lack Spanish and/or childcare skills or experience. Many of the migrant children are monitored for escape attempts, panic attacks and self-harm as a result of detention and trauma associated with immigration.


Photo taken from: AP News

These alarming reports sound an alarm to hold the Biden Administration accountable for their campaign promises, upholding the provisions of the 1997 Flores Agreement that ensures migrant children’s rights throughout the immigration process.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

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  • The National Immigration Law Center: an organization that exclusively dedicates itself to defending and furthering the rights of low income immigrants and strives to educate decision makers on the impacts and effects of their policies on this overlooked part of the population.



  • Kids in Need of Defense: an organization that promotes the protection of children as they migrate alone in search of safety and ensuring children’s rights are upheld and respected.

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  • First Focus on Children: a Washington, DC based advocacy organization dedicated to making children and their families a priority in federal policy and budget decisions.
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