President Joe Biden’s administration has abandoned its plan to house “tender age” migrant children at an Army base in Texas that raised concerns about poor conditions and extended stays, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told CBS News on Monday.
As recently as May 13, the Department of Health and Human Services had planned to keep as many as 5,000 migrant children under the age of 12 at Fort Bliss, which is one of 13 locations that the administration is planning to use to house unaccompanied minors, based on internal government documents that were obtained by CBS News.
“We do not intend to house tender age children — children under the age of 12 — at the Fort Bliss facility,” Becerra said on a call with reporters on Monday. “We only have kids who are 12 to 17 at the Fort Bliss facility.”
As of last Friday, the fort was housing about 4,500 teenagers, a situation that some legislators and activists had raised concerns over.
“It is shocking that the government ever contemplated sending young children to a setting that fails to meet rudimentary child welfare standards,” said Neha Desai, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law who is representing migrant children in a case in federal court. “It is certainly a relief to know that they are no longer considering warehousing these very young children on a military base where they’d be confined in enormous tents with thousands of other children.”
Becerra said that he toured Fort Bliss last weekend, and said that the children there have been provided “with the clothing and the sanitary materials that they need. I saw no shortage. In fact, as I said, I saw a warehouse with the articles that they would need.”
When asked about concerns raised by Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, and others over the mental health of the children being held at Fort Bliss, and specifically reports of self-harm, Becerra said, “I doubt that any of the children in these facilities would tell any one of us that what they’re experiencing now is anywhere near as traumatic as what they experienced trying to get here.”
Desai noted that extended stretches in government custody can hurt children’s mental health.
“It is true that unaccompanied children generally arrive at our borders with complex trauma,” Desai said. “But it is far from true that their distress while in government custody is exclusively the result of their pre-existing trauma. Research has confirmed what our experience interviewing these children repeatedly reveals — detention is harmful and can profoundly exacerbate underlying trauma.”
The secretary noted that the department is “doing everything we can while they’re temporarily in our care to make sure we help address that as best we can.”
He added, “If I were a child and I was without my parent, without my family, in a foreign country, not being able to speak the language, not knowing what will happen to me, I would feel stressed as well.”
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