Top aides to President Joe Biden are ramping up pressure on the agency that shelters thousands of unaccompanied migrant children, voicing frustration that kids are not being released quickly enough from detention, U.S. officials said.
In daily calls with representatives from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other agencies, White House officials have demanded HHS speed up releases from its overloaded shelter system.
According to the officials, the White House wants the HHS to free up space for children packed into crowded border patrol stations.
HHS is in charge of housing the migrant children and vetting potential U.S. sponsors, often parents and close relatives, who seek to take them in.
The pressure on HHS comes as the administration is scrambling to open shelters to house children – mostly from Central America – who are crossing the border in record numbers, deepening a humanitarian crisis for Biden that is one of his first major tests in office.
“The main White House aides exerting pressure on HHS are Susan Rice, Biden’s domestic policy adviser, and a powerful voice within the administration.
“Also, Amy Pope, a senior adviser for migration who was hired in March to help deal with the escalating situation at the southern border,’’ two of the three officials said.
Rice, in particular, has pressed HHS staffers on what she sees as an unacceptably slow pace of releases of children to sponsors, the three officials said.
While the number of children in HHS custody has grown by more than 65 per cent between the end of March and mid-April, reaching more than 19,000, the number released from shelters has stayed around 300 per day, according to Reuters analysis of government data.
“Everyone’s working around the clock, and there’s a big moral issue.
“These are people who signed up to help kids,” at HHS, said one of the three officials.
The tensions within the administration have not previously been reported in detail.
They are emerging as U.S. Customs and Border Protection expects to arrest more unaccompanied children here this year than in any year since record-keeping began in 2010, according to an internal U.S. government estimate reviewed by Reuters.
Mark Weber, an HHS spokesman, said government agencies were working together with the common goal of trying to get children out of crowded border patrol stations.
However, he conceded that Zoom and phone calls can get heated.
“It’s tense,” Weber said in an interview, adding: “But it’s a healthy tension with high-powered folks aligned around the mission of making sure these kids are well-taken care of.”
White House spokesman Vedant Patel said the pace of moving children out of border stations and into HHS shelters was “unacceptable’’.
He added that the entire federal government is working tirelessly to add capacity and take steps to swiftly unite unaccompanied minors with vetted relatives. (Reuters/NAN)