The number of immigrant children held in detention facilities in the United States has skyrocketed over the past year, according to a New York Times report published Thursday.
The report cites “data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services” and was shared with members of Congress, who then gave the information to the Times. It reveals the Trump administration is currently holding at least 12,800 immigrant minors in various detention facilities across the country. In May 2017, the number was around 2,400.
“The huge increases, which have placed the federal shelter system near capacity, are due not to an influx of children entering the country, but a reduction in the number being released to live with families and other sponsors […],” the Times wrote. “Some of those who work in the migrant shelter network say the bottleneck is straining both the children and the system that cares for them.”
A large number of children are teenagers from Central America who came to the United States as unaccompanied minors — alone, without their parents. The teens are mostly being held in “a system of more than 100 shelters” with a heavy concentration along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Many detention facilities are nearing 100 percent capacity. According to the Times, those same shelters were only around 30 percent full at this point last year.
“You are flying in the face of child welfare, and we’re doing it by design,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) told the Times this week. “You drive up the cost and you prolong the trauma on these children.”
The Trump administration has so far pointed the blame for such issues at Congress, with an HHS spokesperson telling the outlet Wednesday night that “pull factors” had contributed to the rising number of detained minors, many of whom came to the United States seeking asylum.
“The number of unaccompanied alien children apprehended are a symptom of the larger issue of a broken immigration system,” HHS press secretary Evelyn Stauffer said. “That is why HHS joins the president in calling on Congress to address this broken system and the pull factors that have led to increasing numbers at the U.S. border.”
Scores of immigrant children have been detained at the U.S.-Mexico border over the past six months, under President Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy. In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions expanded the policy to include family separations, forcibly removing children as young as infants from their parents and locking them in juvenile detention camps, with the youngest — those under 5 years old — placed in “tender age” facilities.
Although President Trump later reversed course, signing an executive order in June ending the practice he had put in place previously, his legal woes continued, with immigration lawyers and advocates filing suit against the administration this summer in an attempt to speed up reunifications of those families. More than 400 minors remain separated and detained due to immigration officials’ decision to deport many parents without their children, and the administration has chosen to foist those reunification responsibilities onto organizations like the ACLU.
Typically, the Times noted this week, unaccompanied minors are processed through the detention facilities more quickly, with the government locating and vetting approved sponsors — some of them family members — to whom the children can be released. But Wednesday’s report shows that process has slowed over the past year, causing the detention population to rise significantly and forcing children to remain locked up, rather than with sponsors, ahead of immigration court hearings.
In some cases, children have been held for more than a year, as they await immigration officials’ next steps. An investigative report by ProPublica, published earlier this week, showed detained minors in several Illinois facilities had suffered emotional crises and threatened to harm themselves or others as a result. Many minors are also being held in facilities with long histories of alleged abuse, sexual violence, or neglect.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is preparing to expand populations at those facilities further. As ThinkProgress noted Wednesday, HHS officials announced this week they would add an additional 3,800 beds at the Tornillo, Texas-based tent-city for immigrant minors, effectively tripling its current capacity.
Human rights groups and civil rights activists have previously condemned the tent city and others like it as “inhumane.”
The news prompted immediate outrage among the public and sparked a series of condemnations from elected officials.
“This administration has resorted to putting kids in tents rather than pushing for comprehensive immigration reform while Congress sits complicit with inaction,” Texas state Rep. César Blanco (D-El Paso) told the Texas Tribune Tuesday. “It’s immoral and un American.”