Children in Border Patrol custody were seen at the Northeast El Paso Border Patrol station over the weekend. (Photo courtesy of United Inter-Tribal Nations)

Migrant children without parents or guardians are crossing the El Paso-area border in increasingly large numbers, possibly portending challenges as the Biden administration looks to adjust border enforcement approaches.

Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 900 unaccompanied migrant children in December in the El Paso sector, which includes Far West Texas and New Mexico. That’s the highest number since June 2019, according to Customs and Border Protection data.

Gloria Chavez, the El Paso Border Patrol Sector chief, said the increase has continued in January, according to CBP spokesman Roger Maier. He said the Border Patrol is placing the migrants in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours, as required by law.

“The good news is that the turnaround for getting them to ORR is about 15-16 hours right now, which has been holding steady,” Maier said. 

Immigrant rights advocates who monitor the border region photographed a large group of children at the Border Patrol station in Northeast El Paso over the weekend.

The Border Patrol station in Northeast El Paso held a group of migrant children over the weekend. (Photo courtesy of United Inter-Tribal Nations)

“The quick transfer of unaccompanied children to ORR facilities is encouraging,” said Josh Rubin, founder of the watchdog group Witness at the Border. 

The increase in unaccompanied children crossing the border is one indication of immigration challenges awaiting the Biden administration.  On Jan. 20, the city of El Paso issued a press release saying it was working with nonprofit groups and others to prepare for a possible sharp increase in the number of migrants crossing the border.

“Chief Chavez has been regularly briefing a group of local law enforcement, medical, elected officials and other stakeholders on trends every two weeks including this past Friday. The (unaccompanied children) matter and the quick turnaround was one of the topics discussed,” Maier said.

The number of unaccompanied migrant children apprehended in the El Paso region remains well below the peak in the spring of 2019, when the Border Patrol was harshly criticized for holding children for days in overcrowded stations. The most unaccompanied children taken into custody in the El Paso sector was 3,255 in May 2019.

Crossings by unaccompanied children dropped significantly as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020. 

The Trump administration quickly expelled most unaccompanied migrant children through much of 2020, a move migrant advocates called illegal. A federal judge blocked the practice in November

Unaccompanied migrant children taken into custody by the Border Patrol must be turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. They stay in ORR shelters until they can be placed with a sponsor, usually a family member in the United States.

The Trump administration implemented a number of controversial changes in handling unaccompanied children. 

The administration made it more difficult for sponsors to take custody of children. As a result, children spent much longer in government custody and overwhelmed ORR’s shelter system in 2018. As a result, the Trump administration expanded what was supposed to be a temporary tent shelter in Tornillo. 

In December 2018, more than 15,000 migrant children were in ORR custody, the largest number of children detained without criminal charges since the Japanese-American internment of World War II.

The Trump administration reversed many of the sponsor requirement changes in December 2018, which led to the closure of the Tornillo facility and a huge reduction in the number of children in ORR custody.

Rubin, the founder of Witness at the Border, said the treatment of children at ORR shelters bears watching. In fiscal year 2020, children spent an average of 102 days in ORR custody, according to the agency. That’s an increase from 34 days on average in 2016.

“What made Tornillo and Homestead (a shelter in Florida) such travesties were the long, brutal delays, sometimes of more than a year, in placement of these children with families and relatives ready to sponsor and care for these children. Our belief is that such long term confinement, in tents and traumatic isolation, was punitive,” Rubin said.

“We will watch to make sure that this practice ends under the Biden administration,” he said.

Cover photo: Children in Border Patrol custody were seen at the Northeast El Paso Border Patrol station over the weekend. (Photo courtesy of United Inter-Tribal Nations)

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.