U.S. to house migrant children in former North Carolina boarding school later this summer

Washington — The Biden administration is planning to start housing up to 800 unaccompanied migrant children processed along the southern border in a repurposed boarding school in North Carolina later this summer, a U.S. official familiar with the plan told CBS News.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency charged with caring for unaccompanied migrant minors, is eyeing to open the facility in Greensboro, North Carolina, in August, according to the official, who was granted anonymity to discuss internal plans.

The former home of a boarding school known as the American Hebrew Academy will house migrant boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who entered U.S. border custody without their parents or legal guardians.

With 800 beds, the campus will become the government’s largest active housing facility for unaccompanied minors. It will be opened as an “influx care facility,” a term HHS uses to describe emergency housing sites it sets up during a spike in child migrant arrivals along the southern border.

Another influx care facility in Texas, a tent camp inside the sprawling Fort Bliss U.S. Army post, currently has the capacity to house up to 500 migrant children. HHS has sought to minimize its use of the Fort Bliss camp, which was dogged with reports of substandard conditions and child depression in 2021. The other influx care facility, a former work camp in Pecos, Texas, has not housed children since earlier this year.

Advocates for migrant children have long criticized the establishment and use of influx care facilities, particularly because they are not regulated by state child welfare agencies, unlike traditional HHS shelters. Over the years, facilities like the Fort Bliss camp — and a now-shuttered facility in Homestead, Florida — have gained national infamy because of reports of subpar services and distressed children.

The facility in Greensboro, however, was originally set up to house students, and includes more than two dozen buildings, sport fields and an athletic center in a green campus near a lake. The site will offer migrant children educational instruction, recreation, mental health support and medical services.

HHS houses unaccompanied children who lack a legal immigration status in shelters, foster homes and emergency housing facilities until they turn 18 or can be placed with a U.S.-based sponsor, who is typically a family member, such as a parent, older sibling or grandparent. Most unaccompanied children who pass through the agency’s custody are teenagers who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization after fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.

U.S. law prevents border officials from rapidly deporting non-Mexican unaccompanied children, and allows them to apply for an immigration benefit, such as asylum or visas for abused, abandoned or neglected youth, to try to stay in the country legally. HHS facilities generally have more services and better conditions than the jail-like stations and tents overseen by Border Patrol, which is bound by law to transfer unaccompanied minors to HHS within 72 hours of processing them.

While influx care facilities have been opened during spikes in child migration, arrivals of unaccompanied minors along the U.S.-Mexico border have declined since setting a record high in fiscal year 2022. Border Patrol processed 9,458 unaccompanied minors in May, a 34% drop from the same month last year, according to federal statistics

As of earlier this week, HHS was housing just over 5,800 migrant children, the lowest level during the Biden administration, and a nearly 75% drop from a peak of 22,000 minors in the spring of 2022, government records show. At that time, the Biden administration struggled to respond to a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied children entering border custody and was forced to convert work camps, convention centers and military bases into makeshift shelters.

Overall illegal crossings along the southern border have also declined recently. While the termination of the Title 42 public health restrictions on migration on May 11 were expected to fuel a massive rise in migrant arrivals, unlawful border crossings have instead plunged to roughly 3,000 after peaking at 10,000.

HHS’ processing of unaccompanied minors has been under scrutiny under the Biden administration due to a marked increase in cases of migrant teens working dangerous and grueling jobs after being released from government custody. Their jobs in factories, meat plants and construction sites violate federal child labor laws, which severely restrict the type of physical work minors can do.

After The New York Times published an investigation into these cases earlier this year, the administration announced it would improve the vetting of adults who sponsor migrant children out of government custody, and ramp up efforts to prosecute cases of child exploitation in worksites.

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