The new emergency shelters come amid record-high levels of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, including some 11,000 kids who arrived at the border in the month of May without their parents. These “unaccompanied alien children,” or UACs, are typically older children or teens, but can sometimes include younger children traveling as part of a group, who travel in the hopes of meeting up with parents and other relatives already inside the U.S. The kids often spend several weeks or even months in temporary shelters before they can be placed with a sponsor.
The agency’s program also has come under severe financial strain in recent weeks, as Congress has yet to fulfill the Trump administration’s request for $2.9 billion in emergency money to pay for the shelters. As a result of the influx and lack of money, HHS said last week it was canceling education and recreational services for the kids. The program is expected to run out of money later this month, unless Congress approves the money.
Wilfredo Lee/AP, FILE
Children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla., Feb. 19, 2019.
Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan has urged Congress to act on the spending request, noting the 2,000 kids waiting at Border Patrol stations. HHS has said previously that shelter capacity was tight but not maxed out and that no child would be turned away if transported to its shelters.
On Tuesday, HHS spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer confirmed that capacity for the program in recent days has topped 90 percent, and at one point went as high as 97 percent. The number fluctuates by the day as kids are placed with sponsors and are moved out of the program while others are processed upon arrival. One particular problem, she said, has been that certain shelters might have space but aren’t a good fit for the age or gender of the child in need. Some shelters are designated for teen boys, for example, whereas others are better equipped to care for younger children.