As the Trump administration was scrambling to reunify thousands of migrant families it had separated during a period of “zero tolerance” immigration policy, it at one point in July 2018 held 37 children in vans for hours in the parking lot of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, NBC News reported Monday.
The administration, under a court order to reunify the families it had separated, struggled to process the backlog of children who needed to be reconnected to parents or guardians. The 37 children placed in vans on July 15, 2018, were sent from a Department of Health and Human Resources facility to be processed by ICE at an adults-only facility called Port Isabel Detention Center and returned to their families. The kids were all between 5 and 12 years old, and while some were reunited with their families in less than a day—the first left the van after 11 hours—most spent at least 23 hours in the vans, according to NBC News. The last child to be processed and reunited with a parent or guardian had spent two nights in a van, for a total of 39 hours.
ICE had been warned that the children would be arriving, but officers didn’t prepare properly, said an official from BCFS Health and Human Services, the nonprofit government contractor that was responsible for transporting the children. No one greeted the children when they arrived, and the ICE officers left for the day as if on a normal schedule, the BCFS official told NBC News.
The children were taken into the ICE facility but then returned to the vans as ICE proceeded with the paperwork—a process repeated later that evening. When BCFS realized the children were not going to be processed by nightfall, the company called in more vans to give children more space to sleep, and officials retrieved blankets and food from the HHS facility where the children had stayed. According to the official, ICE told BCFS that if they returned the children to the HHS facility, the reunifications would be delayed.
The BCFS regional director sent an email complaining about the situation to the company’s president after eight hours of waiting, and HHS became involved, making calls to ICE officials to try to expedite the processing. An ICE spokesman told NBC News that the agency “took immediate action to resolve the situation,” which it called “unusual.” Since the incident, no child waited more than a few hours to be reunited with parents, the agency said.
Previous NBC News reporting found that the Trump administration had not kept track of the children and their parents during the separation and that it did not have an effective way to link them when it was attempting to reunify them. As a result, a massive backlog slowed the process to a crawl.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that migrant children, who for the most part arrive unaccompanied at the border, continue to be held in near-capacity Border Patrol facilities struggling from the large number of arrivals each week. As a result, these facilities, which are not properly equipped for housing children, are tasked with holding the minors for sometimes as long as a week—far longer than the 72 hours allowed under law.
Without proper resources, the children are made to sleep on mats on the floor or on concrete benches or even the pavement outside. On Tuesday, NBC News noted that HHS is operating at 97 percent capacity, making it increasingly difficult to find a place for the children to stay under U.S. custody. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security have warned that more children will die at border stations if HHS does not increase its capacity, according to NBC News. HHS has countered that it needs funding from Congress to do so. Six migrant children have died in U.S. custody since September.