People surround a car as it arrives carrying food donations at a makeshift camp for migrants seeking asylum in the United States at the border crossing on March 12, 2021, in Tijuana, Mexico.

People surround a car as it arrives carrying food donations at a makeshift camp for migrants seeking asylum in the United States at the border crossing on March 12, 2021, in Tijuana, Mexico. Gregory Bull/AP

Biden Taps FEMA to Run Interagency Effort to House Record Influx of Migrant Children

Agencies have struggled to keep pace with the unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the southwest border.

President Biden has deployed Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel to the southwest border to assist with an influx of migrants, with a focus on the unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors arriving there. 

FEMA will lead a governmentwide effort to address the record number of children making the journey from Central America and Mexico and organize the interagency response to process and find permanent housing for them. The Biden administration faced pushback after it placed thousands of minors in tents and other shelters managed by the Homeland Security Department, including a detention center in Texas. 

The administration announced a 90-day effort to address the stream of young migrants traveling without their parents, saying it is working “around the clock” to transfer the children from Customs and Border Protection custody to the Health and Human Services Department. Unaccompanied immigrant children are typically transferred to the custody of HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours after CBP personnel detain and process them at the border. But the migrants have remained in emergency shelters in CBP custody for longer periods as agencies have struggled to keep pace with the surge of arrivals. Measures for social distancing at the facilities, put in place to protect the migrants from COVID-19, have further strained capacity, administration officials said. 

FEMA staff are now working directly with HHS to "quickly expand physical capacity for appropriate lodging," Homeland Security officials announced on Saturday. They, as well as personnel at CBP, the Federal Protective Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other DHS employees deployed through the department's Volunteer Force, will staff shelters, provide security and offer other support.    

“FEMA is supporting the Department of Health and Human Services’ response to the arrival of unaccompanied children at the southwest border,” an agency spokesperson said. “FEMA is actively engaged with HHS to quickly expand capacity for safe and appropriate shelter, and to provide food, water and basic medical care.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas praised employees for their efforts to address the crisis. 

“I am grateful for the exceptional talent and responsiveness of the FEMA team,” Mayorkas said. “I am incredibly proud of the agents of the Border Patrol, who have been working around the clock in difficult circumstances to take care of children temporarily in our care.”

He added, however, that Border Patrol personnel should not be caring for children and the new, FEMA-led effort would help transfer them to HHS more quickly. 

The effort could present new strains for FEMA, which already has thousands of employees deployed across the country to coordinate efforts to ramp up COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Additionally, hurricane season will begin June 1, when the administration’s 90-day effort will still be underway. Republican lawmakers, who have accused the Biden administration of encouraging the flood of migrants by loosening President Trump’s restrictive immigration policies, said Biden’s new approach could stretch FEMA thin. 

“If FEMA is involved, it’s a disaster by definition,” said Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, who promised oversight of how FEMA is expending resources. “If the secretary is tasking FEMA to help on the southwest border, it further demonstrates the severity of the situation.”

Mayorkas is set to testify before the committee on Wednesday.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., who chairs the panel that allocates funding to DHS in the House Appropriations Committee, praised the Biden administration for expending resources to expand HHS’ shelter capacity. 

“I am confident that FEMA will help to identify shelters quickly so that children can be transferred to the care of ORR until they can be placed with family members or sponsors,” Roybal-Allard said. 

More than 100,000 individuals attempted to cross into the United States along the southwest border in February, a 28% increase from January. While the White House has resisted calling the situation a crisis, the number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border jumped by 60% month over month.