HHS redirects over $2B in COVID-19 funds for migrant children in shelters

The Biden administration is redirecting billions of dollars in funds to fight the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to help cover costs to provide care for thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children.

The Department of Health and Human Services confirmed in an email to FOX TV Stations on Monday that it is redirecting more than $2 billion meant for other health incentives toward covering care for the unaccompanied minors, many of whom are currently housed in mass shelters.

A spokesperson for HHS said the transfer of the funds does not impact the Strategic National Stockpile or the nation’s ongoing effort to put an end to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Under the Unaccompanied Children (UC) Program developed by the Administration for Children and Families’ (ACF) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a department within HHS, children who enter the United States without immigration status and without a legal guardian can acquire basic needs and care, according to the agency’s website. 

"The Unaccompanied Children program has long relied on funding transfers to meet its mission, and this year faces the additional expense of tackling inherited challenges while taking pandemic-related safety precautions, such as testing and social distancing. The recent transfers have had no impact on our ongoing work to defeat this pandemic, or our efforts to ensure the nation is prepared for the next public health crisis," an HHS spokesperson said. 

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The UC program was first initiated in 2003 under the Homeland Security Act of 2002. It has since provided care for more than 175,000 children, according to the HHS. 

The HHS spokesperson added that former President Donald Trump’s administration "requested – and received – nearly $3 billion in supplemental funds from Congress for the UC program back in 2019."

The spokesperson said the agency has doubled capacity at shelters by adding more than 14,000 emergency intake shelter beds.

Confidential data obtained by the Associated Press shows the number of migrant children in government custody more than doubled in the past two months, and this week the federal government was housing around 21,000 kids, from toddlers to teens. A facility at Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army post in El Paso, Texas, had more than 4,500 children as of May 11. 

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, Mark Weber, said the department’s staff and contractors are working hard to keep children in their custody safe and healthy.

A few of the current practices are the same as those that President Joe Biden and others criticized under the Trump administration, including not vetting some caregivers with full FBI fingerprint background checks. At the same time, court records show the Biden administration is working to settle several multimillion-dollar lawsuits that claim migrant children were abused in shelters under Trump.

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Part of the government’s plan to manage thousands of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border involves about a dozen unlicensed emergency facilities inside military installations, stadiums and convention centers that skirt state regulations and don’t require traditional legal oversight.

Inside the facilities, called Emergency Intake Sites, children aren’t guaranteed access to education, recreational opportunities or legal counsel.

In a recent news release, the administration touted its "restoration of a child centered focus for unaccompanied children," and it has been sharing daily totals of the number of children in government custody as well as a few photos of the facilities. This reflects a higher level of transparency than the Trump administration. In addition, the amount of time children spend, on average, inside the system has dropped from four months last fall to less than a month this spring, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Nonetheless, the agency has received reports of abuse that resulted in a handful of contract staffers being dismissed from working at the emergency sites this year, according to an official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.