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Facing Pressure, Biden Administration Scrambles to Shelter Migrant Children

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration took steps on Wednesday to address surging migration to the border, restoring a program allowing some Central American children to apply from their home country for admission to the United States and searching for additional housing for the increasing number of young migrants who have been detained after crossing from Mexico.

Facing intensifying pressure over the prolonged detention of migrant children, Roberta S. Jacobson, a special assistant to President Biden overseeing border issues, announced the restart of an Obama-era program that allowed children in Central America to apply for protection remotely and avoid making the dangerous journey north to join parents already in the United States.

That program and a $4 billion investment in Central America have been framed by the administration as crucial tools to addressing the poverty, persecution and corruption that have for years pushed vulnerable families to seek sanctuary in the United States. But the long-term strategy to deter illegal migration is running up against the immediate challenge of how to process thousands of migrant children at the U.S. border — a situation that has drawn swift backlash from Republicans and Democrats.

Troy Miller, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said on Wednesday that 9,457 children were detained at the border without a parent in February, up from more than 5,800 in January. Detentions of unaccompanied minors in February more than doubled compared with the same period in 2020.

Officials apprehended a migrant along the border or at its entry ports more than 100,400 times in February, a roughly 28 percent increase from the prior month.

Most of those migrants — more than 70,000 — were single adults rapidly turned back south under a pandemic emergency rule. The Biden administration has broken from the Trump administration in letting children into the United States to make good on the president’s promise to be more humane at the border.

But Mr. Biden now faces the challenge of processing migrant children quickly out of border jails and into shelters.

By Monday, the number of children stuck in border detention facilities had tripled to more than 3,250, according to federal immigration agency documents obtained by The New York Times. More than 1,300 of those children were held longer than the three days allowed by law before they are required to be moved to shelters managed by the Health and Human Services Department.

“We continue to struggle with the number of individuals in our custody, especially in a pandemic,” said Mr. Miller, who declined to provide the latest number of migrants stuck in border facilities.

Republicans are framing the situation as a crisis of Mr. Biden’s making, signaling an aim to use his immigration agenda as a political weapon against him in 2022. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, is planning to lead other Republicans on a trip to the border to highlight the issue. Representative James R. Comer, Republican of Kentucky, on Wednesday called the increase in migration a signal “to the world that our immigration laws can be violated with little, if any, consequence.”

Mr. Biden, however, has continued to use a Trump-era rule to rapidly turn away most migrants at the border, with the exception of unaccompanied minors. The administration last week directed the shelters designed to hold the children to return to their normal capacity, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

In the scramble to find additional space for the children, the Biden administration is considering housing them at unused school buildings, military bases and even a NASA site, Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, Calif., according to a memo obtained by The Times. The NASA site would “remain unoccupied but available for use if H.H.S. has an urgent need for additional shelter space,” the memo said.

The Health and Human Services Department did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for NASA did not respond for comment.

Mr. Biden campaigned on a more humane approach to immigration at the border, one that would prioritize investing in Central America to deter illegal immigration. But it has had the effect of drawing more people who see a better chance to enter the United States than they had under the Trump administration.

“One of the things I think is important is we’ve seen surges before,” Ms. Jacobson said. “Surges tend to respond to hope. And there was a significant hope for a more humane policy.”

One part of the Obama administration’s response was creating the program that allowed Central American children to apply for protection from their home countries.

Ms. Jacobson said the Biden administration would begin the restart of the program by processing the nearly 3,000 children in the region who were approved to travel to the United States when President Donald J. Trump closed that pathway in 2017. The United States will then begin accepting new applications for the program.

Ms. Jacobson also pointed to $4 billion in U.S. aid that will go to nonprofit and civil organizations as a way to bolster the region and keep Central Americans home. Under the Obama administration, Mr. Biden, then the vice president, led an effort to invest $750 million in the region. Mr. Trump had for a period cut such State Department funding to pressure the countries to do more to prevent migration north.

Ms. Jacobson emphasized that the aid would be sent on the condition that the foreign governments respect human rights and root out corruption. The approach, used during the Obama administration, was based on the view that it was possible to persuade governments to work with nonprofits to root out the poverty, corruption and violence that spur migration to the United States.

“They’re realizing that the aid can’t be successful as long as there are political and economic elites that are stealing public funds instead of investing them,” said Álvaro Montenegro, a member of the Alliance for Reforms, a platform of 35 civil society groups focused on the justice system. “You have to learn from how old strategies have failed. We have gone backward. There’s more poverty, more violence and more corruption.”

But even if the approach eventually works, it will take time to reduce the number of migrants traveling to the United States. Top administration officials have said that they will also need time to unwind Mr. Trump’s policies at the border and that if adult migrants arrive now, they will be rapidly turned away under a Trump-era emergency rule.

But Ms. Jacobson said that the messaging of the government could only go so far.

“We are trying to convey to everybody in the region that we will have legal processes for people in the future, and we’re standing those up as soon as we can,” she said. “But at the same time, you cannot come through irregular means.”

Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting from Mexico City, and Catie Edmondson from Washington.

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