WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist in processing an increasing number of children and teenagers who have filled detention facilities at the southwest border, as criticism mounts over the treatment of young migrants.
FEMA, which normally provides financial assistance during natural disasters, will help find shelter space and provide “food, water and basic medical care” to thousands of young migrants, Michael Hart, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement.
The administration also asked officials in the Homeland Security Department to volunteer “to help care for and assist unaccompanied minors” who have been held in border jails that are managed by Customs and Border Protection.
Previous administrations have also dispatched FEMA to help process migrants during surges in border crossings. However, the Biden administration cannot use disaster aid funding to support the processing of migrants in Texas after they cross the border without the consent of Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican. States must request the funding from the federal government.
Renae Eze, a spokeswoman for Mr. Abbott, said the Biden administration proposal to leverage disaster aid for Texas “does not just simply offer testing and funding with no strings attached.”
“It forces Texas to use our resources for what is the federal government’s job, border security,” she said. “The federal government alone has the responsibility to test, screen and quarantine illegal immigrants crossing our border who may have Covid.”
Roughly 4,000 youths were in Customs and Border Protection facilities this week, more than the roughly 2,600 children and teenagers held in such detention facilities in June 2019. Troy Miller, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said last week that 9,457 children, including teenagers, were detained at the border without a parent in February, up from more than 5,800 in January.
The Biden administration has so far failed to quickly process the young migrants and transfer them to shelters managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, where they are held until the government matches them with a sponsor. The administration has struggled to expand the capacity of those shelters, where roughly 8,500 migrants were held this week. The Biden administration recently directed the shelters intended to hold the children to return to normal capacity, despite the coronavirus pandemic.
“A Border Patrol facility is no place for a child,” Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said in a statement on Saturday. “Our goal is to ensure that unaccompanied children are transferred to H.H.S. as quickly as possible.”
Mr. Abbott and other Republicans have characterized the increase in border crossings as a direct result of Mr. Biden’s goal to roll back President Donald J. Trump’s restrictive immigration policies. But Mr. Biden has kept a Trump-era pandemic emergency rule that empowers border agents to rapidly turn away migrants at the border, with the exception of unaccompanied minors.
March 14, 2021, 6:19 p.m. ET
“They express surprise and shock about the fact that they are overwhelmed, when the Border Patrol and really everybody here in Texas has known that this is coming,” Mr. Abbott said.
Representative John Katko, Republican of New York, said that if FEMA was involved, “it’s a disaster by definition.”
“I have serious concerns that this will strain a FEMA work force and budget that is already spread thin,” he said, “with a pandemic response ongoing and the Atlantic hurricane season less than three months away.”
The Biden administration has scrambled to find extra shelter space for the children. The administration has considered housing them at unused school buildings, military bases and even a NASA site, Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, Calif.
Officials from the Health and Human Services Department have also been placed at border facilities in an attempt to find sponsors for migrant children faster. The administration last week rescinded a 2018 agreement that allowed the agency to share certain information about sponsors for the children with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Immigration advocates said the agreement discouraged relatives of the youths from stepping forward to sponsor them, effectively creating a backlog in the system.
The surge of crossings is adding new pressure in a divisive policy fight that the last three administrations have also confronted.
Mr. Biden’s critics have moved quickly in recent days to blame him for the increase of arrivals that they say threatens the country’s safety, economic recovery and health as the coronavirus pandemic continues to claim thousands of lives.
Many of them appear eager to shift attention away from the president’s handling of the pandemic and his $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, which has been well received by the public, and toward an issue that could unite the Republican Party in opposition to Democrats.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday called the influx of migrants, particularly children, “a humanitarian challenge to all of us.” But she was determined to cast blame on Mr. Trump and his policies, and longstanding unrest in Central America that had driven waves of migrants north.
“What the administration has inherited is a broken system at the border, and they are working to correct that in the children’s interest,” she said on “This Week” on ABC.
Representative Veronica Escobar, Democrat of Texas, who had also pointed to the Trump administration, said she found the situation at a processing facility that she had toured in El Paso on Friday “unacceptable.”
Nicholas Fandos and Chris Cameron contributed reporting.