The administration is now caring for almost 20,000 migrant children — most of them in emergency shelters. Lawyers argue that the shelters are a violation of what's called the Flores agreement.



President Biden's administration is caring for almost 20,000 migrant children who came to the United States without their parents - 20,000. Most are staying in emergency shelters now, shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services, although advocates are concerned about conditions.

NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been talking with those advocates and others. Franco, good morning.


INSKEEP: How did the kids end up in these shelters?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, well, you know, there was such a large surge at the border. And, you know, the first concern was getting kids out of those border facilities, the jail-like facilities. You know, a lot of these new places that they're in now are better, but they're still less than ideal. There are convention centers in San Diego and Dallas and an army post in El Paso and other really big places.

Here's Clara Long of Human Rights Watch.

CLARA LONG: We have a system of mass detention of kids (laughter) and that's definitely not where we should be ending up.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, Clara and others that I've talked with who have met with the children and talked to them, they say the kids are stressed out. Some of these places are really overcrowded. And there's limited access to bathroom facilities and other tough examples.

INSKEEP: I guess it matters how long you stay in a place like that. How long are kids waiting to be sent to a family somewhere?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, you know, the numbers are coming down. The average was 45 days. Now it's about 30 days. But there are some kids who end up staying much longer. And one of the problems is there are not enough caseworkers working on finding families and vetting sponsors.

I talked to Juana Cuyuch Brito. Her 16-year-old sister Lidia came across from Guatemala. Now Juana is trying to get her out of a shelter.

JUANA CUYUCH BRITO: (Speaking Spanish).

ORDOÑEZ: She's saying there that she doesn't know what's happening with her sister. Lidia has spent more than 70 days in custody, first in Texas and now in Pennsylvania. Juana told me her sister is sad and lonely because she's been there so long and watched other kids leave while she's had to stay.

INSKEEP: What can the advocates do about this?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, they're looking at the situation very carefully and weighing their options. But one says it's a Catch-22. I talked to Peter Schey. He was a lawyer behind the Flores settlement. That's the case that years ago determined the conditions for holding these kids. You know, he argues the shelters are a violation of that Flores agreement because most are not licensed. But he says he worries that pursuing the case could backfire.

PETER SCHEY: The suggestion has been made to us that it may respond by simply changing part of its policy, for example, by saying, well, no, we will only allow children to enter the United States to make their claims if they're, let's say, 14 years of age or younger. If they're 15, 16 or 17, we will remove them just the way the Trump administration removed them.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he told me he wouldn't want to be responsible for older teens being told no, you can't come across the border and have them end up on the streets in Mexico. I did ask the Justice Department about this, and they declined to comment.

INSKEEP: This is really an amazing story of immigration law but in some ways a typical story of immigration law, where you have a lawyer who's worried that strict enforcement of the law would actually be a lot (laughter) worse for people...


INSKEEP: ...Than what's happening now. But what does the administration say about its approach?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, a senior administration official defended the shelters and told me there's a high standard of care for the kids. Health and Human Services told me they notify Flores lawyers about every new shelter and welcome them to visit. And they say they're working to increase the number of licensed beds. I also spoke with Leon Fresco, who worked on this issue for the Obama Justice Department. He says Schey is technically right, that the facilities should be licensed. But he said there's some leeway under the law to give extra time during emergency conditions like a search.

LEON FRESCO: The problem is you can't create those in a day. Those take months to create.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he says there are no easy choices but that the shelters are the best alternative until, of course, you can move them to their parents or other family members.

INSKEEP: Franco, thanks.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: Immigration