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Explainer: Emergency Shelters and Facilities Housing Unaccompanied Children

Table of Contents


Border Patrol Stations

Centralized Processing Centers

Emergency Intake Sites

Influx Care Facilities

Licensed Shelters

Transitional Foster Care


When a record number of unaccompanied children arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in early 2021, the Biden administration scrambled to effectively process and manage the influx. In February and March of 2021,  many migrant children were being held for too long in overcrowded Customs and Border Protection (CBP) holding centers. These facilities are not designed for or capable of providing children – or adults – with adequate care for any extended period of time.

To remedy this, the administration has opened a slew of additional facilities under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to get children into less crowded and more humane conditions as quickly as possible. These actions have begun to pay dividends, with the total number of children in CBP holding cells dropping considerably by early May as more and more children are transferred quickly to HHS care.

However, despite the administration doing a better job of transferring children quickly out of CBP facilities, significant concerns remain that the unlicensed HHS emergency intake sites are themselves not suitable for unaccompanied migrant children to spend prolonged periods. Particular sites, including the Fort Bliss facility near El Paso, Texas, have been investigated multiple times due to reports of poor conditions. Others have been shut down.

In order to best understand the continuing challenge at the border and the efficacy of the administration’s response, it is important to examine carefully the different kinds of shelters and facilities that are currently being used to house unaccompanied children. Different kinds of facilities have different purposes, capacities, and standards of care. This regularly-updated explainer will help to break it all down.

Border Patrol Stations

Under: Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Staffed by: CBP, primarily under the Office of Field and Operations (OFO) and Border Patrol (USBP)

Purpose: Short term detention of single adults. Not meant to house children or adults for longer than a few hours. As of April 2, a minority of unaccompanied children are brought to these stations (there are 81 along the Southern border) to be processed before being transferred to Office of Refugee Resettlement custody. In March, some children were held in Border Patrol stations for longer than a week.

Services Provided: N/A

Conditions: Facilities are cold, small cells. Migrants have nicknamed them “hieleras” (iceboxes). Lights always on, lack of hygienic facilities or adequate medical care. According to an April 2 Flores monitor report, “CBP facilities — which are not appropriate for minors in any event — have been stretched beyond thin.” Border Patrol has also used some holding centers outside of stations, where conditions appear to be even less well-suited for the detention of asylum seekers. Flores Settlement testimony published on June 21 notes inadequate hygiene and poor sleeping conditions for children held in these cells. Children in some locations are not able to speak with their family members on the phone, others have limited access to make phone calls. Children report being “locked up all day.”

Centralized Processing Centers (CPCs)

Under: CBP — Part of DHS

Purpose: Initial intake and processing under CBP. Designed as a response to influx of families and children. Not designed to hold or care for children for longer than three days. Approximately 70% of arriving unaccompanied children are taken here first.

Staffed by: CBP contractors, including meal catering services and medical teams. In the Donna I facility, additional medical teams are present from the U.S. Public Health Service. On April 2, CBP-trained processing coordinators also began working in the facilities.

Services Provided: Clothing, food, medical care.

Conditions: These facilities are not meant to house children or adults for prolonged periods. The original CPC in McAllen, Texas was built to respond to the increase in arriving families and children in 2019, but quickly became overcrowded and failed to provide even basic hygiene to detainees. The McAllen CPC has been nicknamed “la perrera” (the dog pound) by migrants. In late Mach, 2021, extreme overcrowding was reported at the Donna I CPC in the Rio Grande Valley. Some children did not have access to sanitation/showers for days at a time. Oversight and access for journalists has been extremely limited. Overcrowding at Donna I has been substantially eased in recent months. As of June 23, 1,041 children remained in CBP custody.

Notable Locations:

Donna I in Donna, Texas

  • Opened: February 9, 2021
  • Capacity: 500 (Some reports suggest the facility was designed to hold 250 individuals)
  • Additional Notes: Donna I is the soft-sided temporary CPC set up when the McAllen, Texas CPC was closed for renovations in the fall of 2020. Currently, the majority of unaccompanied children arriving at the border are first housed and processed at Donna I, and from February through early April 2021, the facility was between 440% and 900% over capacity. However, as of May 3, 2021, the number of children in CBP — including those held in Donna I —has dropped dramatically.

Potential Additional CPC sites:

Emergency Intake Sites

Under: Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) — part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

Purpose: Getting children out of CBP holding and into HHS custody as quickly as possible. Primarily meant to house teens, and to serve as a halfway point between CBP and a licensed ORR shelter, foster care agency, or sponsor.

Staffed by: Staffing organized by FEMA/Red Cross/other aid groups in addition to HHS. Staffing includes DHS volunteers.

Services Provided: Services provided at all sites should include security, food, water, clothing, sanitation, and medical care. Children are tested for COVID-19 prior to transfer.

Conditions: Conditions/challenges vary across sites. The sites have a higher standard of care than CPCs under CBP, but are not meant to be a substitute for a licensed ORR shelter or even an influx care facility. They are designed to ensure children are in less crowded conditions than Donna I while they are processed and transferred to another facility or a sponsor. These facilities are not state-licensed to serve as shelters for children. One issue facing these sites is a lack of case management personnel to properly determine subsequent placement that is in the best interest of the child. As a result, hundreds of children have been kept in these temporary emergency facilities for longer than 60 days. Adequate food and mental health care has also posed significant problems across facilities. Flores Settlement testimonies reveal extremely poor conditions at several sites, in particular the Fort Bliss facility near El Paso, the facility near Pecos, and the Houston facility that was closed on April 17.

Total staffed bed capacity: N/A

Influx Care Facilities

Under: ORR

Purpose: Increase ORR shelter capacity during periods of increased arrivals. Primarily designed for teens and children without special mental health or care needs, these shelters serve as overflow locations when permanent, licensed, ORR shelters reach capacity.

Staffed by: BCFS Health and Human Services Emergency Management Division (and other nonprofit organizations)

Services Provided: Services provided at all sites include security, food, water, clothing, sanitation, medical care, case management, limited educational, recreational, mental health, and legal services.

Conditions: Unlicensed but designed to meet the same standards of care and oversight as permanent, state-licensed ORR shelters. However, they are much larger than traditional ORR shelters. All children tested for COVID-19 upon arrival, with quarantine procedures in place.

Total Capacity: N/A

Licensed Shelters

Under: ORR

Purpose: House unaccompanied children in the least restrictive manner possible that fits the best interests of the child. Process them quickly on to vetted family members or sponsors while their immigration court cases proceed. Certain shelters are designed to care for tender age children (ages 0-12) and children with particular care and safety needs.

Staffed by: ORR Residential Care Providers (RCPS) who agree to 3-year cooperative agreements (grants). RCP grantees include both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Major grantees that operate multiple shelters include Southwest Key, Heartland Alliance, BCFS, Catholic Charities, and Bethany Christian Services.

Services Provided: Security, food, clothing, medical care, sanitation, mental health services, appropriate classroom education, recreational activity, case management, and unification services facilitating their release to family members. 

Conditions: These are state-licensed facilities and provide more comprehensive care than CBP or emergency sites. However, concerns have been raised about particular contractors and shelters concerning the adequacy of the care they provide. Overseen by ORR project officers and monitoring teams and reviews are conducted before granting agreements with providers. 

Total Staffed Bed Capacity: N/A


Under: ORR

Purpose: Meet the needs of the most vulnerable children in ORR care.

Staffed by: Nonprofit organizations like Bethany Christian Services and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) partner with ORR to place children in short term foster care (a smaller, long-term foster care program also exists under ORR). Foster homes receive background checks and support from foster care agencies to ensure children receive adequate care and services.

Services Provided: ORR gives priority for transitional foster care placements to children under the age of 13 (tender age), teens who are pregnant or parenting, or children with other special needs. Children in foster homes have access to all the same services provided to those in permanent shelters.

Conditions: Foster homes must be trained and licensed and are designed to provide children with family style living environment that is targeted to their needs. The foster care agency must provide services that meet or exceed state licensing requirements.

Total Capacity: As of May 31, 2021, 412 tender age children were housed in transitional foster care settings.

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