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Unaccompanied Children in Emergency Intake Site (EIS) Facilities - A Progress Report

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USA
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WRC
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In May 2022, the Women’s Refugee Commission and First Focus on Children led a delegation of 11 advocacy organizations to the Emergency Intake Site (EIS) facilities for unaccompanied children at Pecos, Texas, and Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas. Advocates also visited the Pecos EIS and Ft. Bliss EIS facilities in May 2021.

EIS facilities were created by the Biden administration in early 2021 to quickly move unaccompanied children out of US Border Patrol custody, which is not appropriate for their care. EIS facilities, operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), lack the state childcare licenses legally required of permanent facilities for unaccompanied children. As a result, they are generally large, institutionalized settings without mandated state or federal oversight and monitoring. As of June 6, 2022, the Biden administration reports that both the Pecos and Ft. Bliss facilities have been converted to Influx Care Facilities (ICF), a distinct legal category with stricter standards for child safety, education, and therapeutic services than EIS facilities, but still below that of licensed care providers.

Our findings: While both sites were significantly improved from May 2021, we remain concerned about the sites’ capacity to meet children’s needs. The Pecos and Ft. Bliss facilities were developed in a moment of extreme need and have provided limited therapeutic and educational services. Life for unaccompanied children at Pecos and Ft. Bliss is highly regimented, which — because teenagers have strong developmental needs for increased privacy and personal autonomy — makes the sites ill-suited for the children housed there. Currently, ORR directs children with more challenging cases to other facilities, and both Pecos and Ft. Bliss are able to reunify children with sponsors more quickly than licensed facilities and more quickly than all reunifications in 2019, which is the last time the system underwent similar strain. Despite improvements, we continue to have significant concerns about the appropriateness of these facilities for any child, and emphasize that care practices at the facilities would be particularly unacceptable if reunification times fall to 2019 rates.

Notable improvements from our May 2021 visits

Rapid reunifications with family. The EIS facilities at Pecos and Ft. Bliss are reuniting unaccompanied children with family members more rapidly than a year ago, when long lengths of stay were far too common. Case management is much improved, and metrics for reunification (e.g., discharge rates and average length of stay) were strong as of our visit. However, case management concerns remain, as licensed providers who receive transferred children report inconsistent quality in children’s needs assessments at Pecos and Ft. Bliss, progress on sponsor verification, communications with home-country parents, and evaluations of individual children’s specific vulnerability to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking.

Compliance with Prevention of Sexual Abuse (PSA) standards. On the 2021 visit, advocates noted that even basic procedures for PSA compliance were missing at both sites, such as hotline telephones for urgent situations, boxes for reporting misconduct confidentially, and posters informing children of their rights. During our 2022 visit, posters informing children of their rights were visible in key common areas and dorms, as were PSA phones and grievance boxes.

Physical facilities and hygiene at Ft. Bliss. On the 2021 visit, advocates noted overcrowded dormitory tents, shower facilities that were deficient for the size of the child population, insufficient changes of clothing for children to remain clean in an area with abundant dust and dust storms, and inadequate opportunities for clothes washing and personal hygiene. During the 2022 visit, we observed that children had regular access to shower facilities, several changes of clothes, and laundry was done at regular intervals. However, we attribute a large proportion of the visible improvements to lower numbers of children at Ft. Bliss.