Explainer: Emergency Shelters and Facilities Housing Unaccompanied Children

*Updated June 25, 2021*

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: 17,894 as of May 13

Notable Locations:

EIS in Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, Dallas, Texas

  • Opened: March 17 — No longer housing children as of June 22
  • Overall Capacity: 2,300
  • Staffed Capacity: 1,990 as of May 13
  • Additional Notes: This EIS houses boys between the ages of 13 and 17. All children housed together crowded into one large space.

EIS in Midland, Texas

  • Opened: March 21 (new admissions briefly paused due to concerns surrounding standards of care).
  • Overall Capacity: 700
  • Staffed Capacity: 601 as of May 13
  • Additional notes: Water at the Midland site has been determined to be undrinkable, and additional concerns have been raised about qualifications of volunteer staffers at the site.

EIS in San Diego Convention Center, California

  • Opened: March 27
  • Overall Capacity: 1,450
  • Staffed Capacity: 1,450 as of May 13
  • Additional notes: This EIS houses girls between the ages of 13 and 17 and a small number of boys under the age of 13. ORR lease of space lasts only through July 2021. An independent monitor found the site provides a “safe and comfortable environment, including open space, adequate food, clean and appropriate clothing, single beds for sleeping, recreation areas, and professional medical assistance on-site.”

EIS In Freeman Expo Center, San Antonio, Texas

  • Opened: March 30 — No longer housing children as of June 1
  • Overall Capacity: 2,400
  • Staffed Capacity: 2,010 as of May 13
  • Additional notes: This shelter houses boys between the ages of 13 and 17. The 2,400 beds include 300 medical beds. Children housed in two very large rooms, each with hundreds of cots.

EIS in Fort Bliss, Texas (ORR/DOD)

  • Opened: March 30
  • Overall Capacity: 5,000+
  • Staffed Capacity: 5,518 as of May 13
  • Additional notes: This shelter houses boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17. The largest EIS housing unaccompanied children, consisting of 12 separate tents each with hundreds of cots. Reported as dealing with health and safety issues as of May 13. The site of a BBC investigation published June 23, which documented allegations of sexual abuse, COVID-19 and lice outbreaks, inadequate provision of food and medical attention, and overcrowding. Flores Settlement testimony from numerous children reveals many have been at the site for over 60 days. The testimonies also documents severe mental health concerns as well as inadequate food, case management and legal services, and bright lights kept on at night. Brief phone calls allowed approximately twice a week. Conditions appeared to deteriorate sometime in May, coinciding with the contracting out of youth care responsibilities at the site to a company called Servpro.

EIS in National Association of Christian Churches, Houston, Texas

  • Opened: April 2 — No longer housing children as of April 17
  • Capacity: 500
  • Additional notes: This shelter houses girls between the ages of 13 to 17. HHS announced on April 23 that children housed in the facility would be transferred to available permanent, state-licensed shelters or united with family members or sponsors. According to Flores testimony, some children were transferred to other Emergency Intake Sites. The testimony also refers to extremely poor conditions for children in the Houston site, including some kept inside for weeks on end and poor provision of food and case management services.

EIS Delphi in Donna, Texas

  • Opened: April 6
  • Overall Capacity: 1,500
  • Staffed Capacity: 1,426 as of May 13
  • Additional notes: This shelter houses boys and girls between the ages of 13 to 17. The facility will be near the main CBP processing center currently handling unaccompanied minors, Donna I.

EIS in Pecos, Texas

  • Opened: April 6
  • Overall Capacity: 2000.
  • Staffed Capacity: 1,497 as of May 13
  • Additional Notes: Houses boys and girls ages 13 to 17. All children who transfer in will be tested twice for COVID-19 while being held in a seven-day quarantine. Flores Settlement testimony reveals at least one child had been held in the site for 62 days and multiple children had not had access to a case manager. Brief phone calls allowed every 4-6 days.

EIS Carrizo Springs II (Dimmit)

  • Opened: April 6
  • Overall Capacity: 440
  • Staffed Capacity: 438 as of May 13
  • Additional notes: Will house boys and girls ages 13 to 17.

EIS in Starr Commonwealth Campus, Albion, Michigan

  • Opened: April 13
  • Overall Capacity: 240
  • Staffed Capacity: 190 as of May 13
  • Additional notes: Will house boys ages 5 to 17. Children housed in cabins. One testimony reports adequate provision of case management and legal services.

EIS in Pennsylvania International Academy, Erie, Pennsylvania

  • Opened: April 17 — No longer housing children as of April 23
  • Overall Capacity: 418
  • Additional notes: HHS announced on April 23 that children housed in the facility would be transferred to available permanent, state-licensed shelters or united with family members or sponsors.

EIS in Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas (ORR/DOD)

  • Opened: April 17 — No longer housing children as of June 1
  • Overall Capacity: 372
  • Staffed Capacity: 372 as of May 13
  • Additional notes: Will house boys ages 13 to 17. The facility is expected to be used for approximately 60 days.

EIS in Long Beach Convention Center, Long Beach, California

  • Opened: April 22
  • Capacity: 1,000
  • Staffed Capacity: 800 as of May 13
  • Additional notes: Capacity includes medical isolation. The facility will be available to girls ages 17 and under and boys ages 12 and under. Includes services for those who are pregnant. Approximately 30 children housed together in each room. An independent court monitor reports generally good conditions in the facility.

EIS in Pomona Fairplex, Pomona, California

  • Opened: May 2
  • Capacity: 2,500
  • Staffed Capacity: 650 as of May 13
  • Additional notes: Will house boys and girls ages 2 to 17. First group of children arrived ages 7 to 14.

EIS Sites that were considered but not opened

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: 1,008

Notable Locations:

ICF Carrizo Springs

  • Opened: February 22, 2021
  • Capacity: 1,008
  • Staffed Capacity: 952 as of May 13
  • Additional Notes: Houses boys and girls ages 13 to 17. Previously used controversially under the Trump administration to help with “Zero Tolerance” policy that separated families. The current administration has said it will hold the IFC to the same standards as permanent ORR shelters and provide for additional oversight. Approximately four children per room and reports of far better case management services than Emergency Intake Sites.

Potential Additional ICF sites:

ICFs that were considered but not opened:

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: 9,095 as of May 13

(Pre-COVID, ORR had a capacity of approximately 13,600 beds in 216 permanent, state-licensed shelters across 22 states. On February 28, ORR reported that total permanent capacity was reduced by 40% due to COVID-19 restrictions — so down to 8,483 beds. Those restrictions were lifted on March 5, but safety precautions have still prevented some permanent shelters from returning to full capacity. In addition to standing up EITs and ICFs, the administration is working to increase capacity at permanent ORR shelters. As of April 8, the administration had brought 1,500 permanent beds back on line and added 560 beds to existing permanent shelters)


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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