The Biden administration on Friday directed facilities that house migrant children to ease capacity restrictions despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as a spike in the number of arrivals at the southern border continued to strain the U.S. immigration system.
The government plans to increase the number of open beds at shelters overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Health and Human Services Department tasked with the care of migrant children.
In an attempt to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, HHS had previously limited capacity at shelters for unaccompanied migrant children by as much as half.
The Centers for Disease Control told Forbes the move to increase capacity was intended to reduce the risk of outbreaks in packed Customs and Border Protection facilities and to provide “more child-focused care.”
CBP has sharply increased apprehensions in recent months as migrants anticipate a friendlier reception at the border under President Joe Biden, who has vowed to overhaul anti-immigration policies put in place under the Trump administration.
In an internal CDC memo obtained by CNN, officials said that “facilities should plan for and expect to have COVID-19 cases” because the pandemic meant there was “no 0% risk scenario.”
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The CDC said it recommended the shelters enforce precautions to reduce the risk of outbreaks, such as testing, masking, isolation and “quarantine space” for individuals with the coronavirus. “Although these measures will not completely eliminate risk given the nature of COVID-19, particularly in congregate settings, CDC believes the risk of an outbreak at an ORR facility that has instituted stricter mitigation measures and is operating at full capacity is lower than that at a densely packed CBP facility with little to no mitigation measures,” the agency said.
Biden has drawn criticism from Republicans in recent days who claimed the administration has allowed migrants to cross the U.S.-Mexico border without Covid-19 tests. Days after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted a statewide mask mandate, he blamed undocumented immigrants for spreading Covid-19. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
In February, Biden announced plans to reopen an emergency shelter for children in Texas. The Trump administration had shut down the Carrizo Springs shelter after Democratic lawmakers and immigration advocates raised alarm about the living conditions there. A government spokesperson told Forbes reporter Deniz Cam the cost of accommodating one child at the shelter is about $775 per day.