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HHS to open new holding facility as migrant presence, confusion on border grows

The Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday announced it will build yet another influx shelter to handle the growing number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, and mitigate the risks of the spread of COVID-19 among the arrivals. Amna Nawaz reports from the southern border.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On the Southern border, the challenge of unaccompanied children continues. Today, the U.S. government announced that it is opening an additional facility to house them, bringing the total number of beds to around 14,000.

    It is the latest move by the Biden administration, as it grapples with this latest surge.

    Our Amna Nawaz is on the ground in Texas with the story.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Morning in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the center of a growing migrant crisis, as the dramatic increase of unaccompanied minors, whom the Biden administration says it won't turn away, is leading to scenes like this, overcrowded border facilities, children and teenagers in tight quarters, thousands being held longer than the 72-hour limit, before being transferred to shelters and family in the U.S.

    These images released today by Customs and Border Protection after weeks of denying the press access to these facilities. As border crossings surge, most people are sent right back to Mexico, like these families, gathering for a moment of prayer in the city of Reynosa.

    This food, from a local church, will likely be their only meal for the day, so kids move to the front of line. This public park, a short walk from the bridge to the U.S., is now their temporary home.

  • Jennifer Harbury:

    You don't hang out near the bridge. The bridge is where all the gangs hang out waiting for people getting sent back.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jennifer Harbury is a volunteer advocate with a group called Angry Tias & Abuelas. She tries to connect these families with social services and legal help.

  • Jennifer Harbury:

    For a lot of people it's not an option to go back to Central America. There was really good reason why they left in the first place.

    They have nothing left. They gave their lesson to the coyotes to get them across and were dumped back. They have no clothes, no food, no transportation, money nothing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    They pack into this gazebo at night, parents sleeping on top of kids to protect them. Stories of child kidnappings by gangs are rampant. And there are young children everywhere, as young as 7 and 8 years old, some younger.

    Many of their parents are surprised, they say, to find themselves among the tens of thousands expelled every month by U.S. officials after trying to cross the border, under a Trump era pandemic rule kept in place by President Biden.

    Has anyone actually heard Biden say the border is closed?

    Not a single person had. In fact, many had heard that Biden promised no deportations, that young children would be allowed in. They say Mexican authorities have offered no help, though, when we show up with cameras, they suddenly appear.

    Within minutes of us arriving, a police car pulled up with the sirens going. He immediately got out, started to take pictures of us and of everyone around here. There's a lot of concern here about coordination between the state police and law enforcement and the cartels. So, tensions are a little high.

    We have been advised by our local team here not to spend very long, but we do want to try to talk to a few people to hear their stories.

    Denis left Honduras a month ago, after back-to-back hurricanes devastated his home at the end of 2020. He brought his 5-year-old son, Denis Jr., With him. He doesn't want to be identified, for fear of the gangs.

    Ada Rosa fled Honduras with her 14-year-old son, Axel, after his older brother was killed in front of them. She brought with her documentation to prove that her son was killed. This is the death certificate, it looks like. She carried all this with her to try to help make her case.

    Axel tells us his biggest fear now is being kidnapped. It's all too much for his mother, who saw the U.S. as a refuge.

  • Ada Rosa (through translator):

    I thought they were going to protect me. Instead, they sent me back here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    With no way to get home, and no chance of entering the U.S., we ask what they will do next. Their journey from here, many say, is in God's hands.

    Border shelters like this one, a short drive away, offer some safe haven. Under pandemic rules, they have limited capacity. But they have been breaching that to meet the growing need.

    Even here, violence follows these families. Organizers say armed men have shown up, demanding to be let in. This city and this state are among the most dangerous in Mexico. And vulnerable populations like migrants are prime targets.

  • Jennifer Harbury:

    They understand how dangerous Reynosa is, and they don't know how to get out of here. They can lie down on top of their kids, and hope to keep them alive, which is not looking good.

    Or they can send them alone across the bridge as unaccompanied minors. Almost everybody there was asking me: If I send my 10-year-old across, a little girl or my 12-year-old boy, what happens? But it's better than here. So they're going through some really hard, hard soul-searching right now. They don't want their kids out of their sight. They love their kids. They're just in agony over this.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are a lucky few. An hour away, at a bus station in Brownsville, Texas, a handful of parents with young children have been released by Border Patrol. They are now making their way to meet up with family in other parts of the U.S., like Sheny from Guatemala, and her 4-year-old daughter, Alyson.

    She crossed the river in a raft with about nine other families. They spent four days in Border Patrol custody before being released.

  • Sheny (through translator):

    They took our picture and our fingerprints. They didn't tell us anything at all. We thought they were going to send us back, because a young woman who was traveling with us had an 8-year-old child, and they sent them back.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Her documents cite only a — quote — "lack of space" as her reason for release. They're now heading to Georgia to reconnect with her husband and 8-year-old daughter, who she hasn't seen in three years.

  • Sheny (through translator):

    It's really an emotional moment right now. I am going to see my older daughter. It's very important for both of my daughters to be together now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Sheny's one of the fortunate ones. But among most of the families and lawyers we talked to, the rules remain unclear about who is being turned back to Mexico and who is being allowed to stay.

    The Biden administration is launching social media campaigns and radio ads, trying to get the message out that, don't come, the border is closed.

    But the reality here on the ground and the Rio Grande Valley, it's less clear. We have met families who are being released into the U.S. We asked Homeland Security why. They responded and reiterated, the border is closed. Most people are being turned back to Mexico. But they did say some agents can make exceptions, based on things like public safety, humanitarian concerns or public health.

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