The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is responsible for the temporary care of unaccompanied children (UC) referred by immigration officials to the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). During the COVID-19 pandemic, HHS has prioritized safety by modifying operations in accordance with CDC guidelines, which include quarantining and testing newly arrived children, and adhering to social distancing principles in ORR care-provider facilities. With increasing numbers of UC being referred to ORR and additional space requirements needed for COVID-19 mitigation strategies, ORR must take the prudent steps to increase the number of shelter beds available and minimize the time children are in CBP custody. Though ORR has worked to build up its licensed bed capacity and currently funds over 13,500 licensed beds (the highest in the program’s history), the COVID-19 pandemic has created conditions that have limited placement at ORR’s licensed shelter facilities.
As such, and based on past experiences, HHS has reactivated the temporary Influx Care Facility (ICF) in Carrizo Springs, Texas, for the placement and care of UC as necessary and required by law. On February 22, 2021, the first UC arrived safely and were welcomed by staff. Initially activated in early June 2019, the ICF has remained unoccupied and on warm status since late July 2019.
The Carrizo Springs ICF capacity is available for children (age 2-17). Currently, the Carrizo Springs ICF will accommodate approximately 1,008 children in hard-sided structures. Additional semi-permanent (soft-sided) capacity may be added if necessary. However, ORR continues to prioritize UC placement in hard-sided structures over semi-permanent structures. The use of influx capacity is a necessary action to ensure ORR’s ability to accept UC referrals from CBP promptly.
BCFS Health and Human Services’ Emergency Management Division (EMD) – a nationally recognized, non-profit emergency management and response organization – operates all components of shelter operations at the facility.
Additionally, ORR works in close coordination with local officials on the security and safety of the children and community. ORR plans to offer facility visits for elected officials, media, and key stakeholders once access can be granted safely, recognizing COVID-19 restrictions and recommendations. ORR currently has a public information officer located at Carrizo Springs to interact with the media and community members.
It is important to note that as soon as children enter ORR care, they are put in contact with their parents, guardians, or relatives, and the process of finding a suitable sponsor begins. The vast majority of sponsors are a parent or a close family relative living in the United States.
While ORR programs are determining whether an individual is an appropriate sponsor, UC are provided age-appropriate care and wraparound services in one of the approximately 200 facilities and programs in 22 states in the care-provider network.
As of May 6, 2021, there are approximately 21,563 UC in ORR care. At the end of March 2021, the system-wide length of care for those discharged from our shelters is 35 days. ORR is working to reduce the length of care further and alleviate capacity issues in ways that do not jeopardize the children's safety or welfare. HHS continues to assess shelter options to reduce reliance on ICFs.
Unaccompanied Children (UC) at Carrizo Springs ICF:
The task of assigning each child to the most appropriate shelter is complex and done with great care. The Carrizo Springs ICF is a self-sufficient site, and youth do not utilize local resources. The site is equipped with full EMS and fire service capabilities. UC remain under staff supervision at all times.
As a result of unprecedented unaccompanied children referrals from DHS, HHS has revised operations at the Carrizo Springs ICF. Carrizo Springs ICF now receives direct border placements instead of serving as a transfer placement facility as initially anticipated. This action delivers on our commitment to minimize time children are in CBP facilities.
Current potential capacity at the Carrizo Springs Shelter is 1,008. Since opening 2,486 children have been placed at the shelter and 1,753 children have been discharged. The current number of children residing at the Carrizo Springs Shelter is 733, including 565 males and 168 females.
Direct care staff fluent in Spanish are on site. Additionally, there are onsite 24/7 translation services for UC who are non-Spanish speaking, if needed. There are 8 buildings that have bedrooms in 14 suites, and each suite sleeps eight children for a total of 112 per building. There is one additional building that has two wings that can serve 28 children in each, but can also be reserved for medical isolations if needed. There is also additional capacity within (7) modular buildings for overflow of children who present illness, if needed. Dorms are separated by teenaged males and females, and tender aged children.
There is a daily schedule that includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, classroom education, and recreation. Each child has a plan for case management, visits with mental health clinicians, and has access to legal services. Health care, mental health care, and general child welfare services are available 24/7.
The facility is subject to all applicable federal regulations and ORR policies and procedures. Individuals working at the Carrizo Springs Influx Shelter have gone through a comprehensive FBI fingerprint background check to confirm identity and a search of federal (FBI/NCIC) and state criminal (TCIC) databases. Background checks are adjudicated by HHS federal personnel. Only individuals with cleared FBI fingerprint background checks will work at the Carrizo Springs Influx facility. While ICFs are not required to be licensed by the state, Carrizo Springs standards exceed minimum Texas state licensing standards in several areas.
ORR assumes full leasing responsibility for the facility during its use, including wear and tear on buildings and grounds. All UC placed at the Carrizo Springs ICF are in the custody of ORR.
UC Health at Carrizo Springs ICF:
During the COVID-19 pandemic, HHS has prioritized the health and safety of UC by modifying operations in accordance with CDC guidelines, to include quarantining and testing newly arrived UC. Additional mitigation strategies include:
- Adherence to CDC guidance for the mitigation of virus spread in congregate settings.
- Ensuring all appropriate protocols, resources, and mitigation measures are in place to prevent COVID-19 infection and/or spread within the UC population.
- Ensuring all appropriate protocols, resources, and mitigation measures are in place to prevent COVID-19 infection and/or spread within all personnel assigned to the incident.
- Reduced census numbers to adhere to social distancing recommendations consistent with CDC guidelines.
- Revised social distancing requirements to align with CDC recommendations to ensure proper spacing of UC in dormitories and other socialsettings.
- Enhanced medical capabilities to include appropriate Med Clinic configurations for isolation/quarantine of UC should the need arise.
The general communicable disease prevention and control measures that are already in place across ORR care provider programs are aiding in the COVID-19 response. These include routine assessment of travel history when a child arrives at a care provider program, an initial medical exam, screening for diseases of public health concern, mental health screenings, and CDC-recommended childhood vaccinations within 2 business days of arriving at ORR shelters.
Additional control measures include the ability to isolate or quarantine individuals for infectious disease control, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette education efforts, and established communicable disease reporting to the local health authority.
All personnel working at the Carrizo Springs Influx Shelter will have cleared drug, TB and COVID tests. COVID-19 testing will be conducted weekly on all personnel. Multiple forms of COVID- 19 testing will be available at the influx shelter, including rapid testing and PCR testing.
Additionally, a fulltime chief medical officer - and several epidemiologists have been assigned to the site in addition to a range of comprehensive medical professionals operating the onsite clinic and infirmary. When a minor test positive for COVID-19, medical isolation is available onsite. Currently there are seven BLU-MED tents on-site with a total of 196 negative air pressure rooms.
Subsequently, ORR has rolled out telehealth in select locations. Telehealth is an initiative that ORR was working on before the COVID-19 pandemic, which will assist programs in accessing medical care without leaving the facilities.
Some health conditions may manifest while the UC resides in a shelter. If a health issue arises, the UC will receive prompt attention, and medical care will be provided.
UC Legal Services at Carrizo Springs ICF:
All UC receive a Know Your Rights presentation and an individual legal screening within 7-10 days of admission into ORR care. Legal services will be provided to UC at Carrizo Springs in the same way that all UC in permanent shelters receive them. Children who have to attend immigration court while in ORR care have an attorney to provide representation either as the UC’s attorney of record or as a Friend of the Court.
UC Educational Services at Carrizo Springs ICF:
Youth at the Carrizo Springs ICF receive educational services as part of their daily structure, but do not attend local public schools. Each youth receives a General Assessment Test to evaluate proper academic placement. The evaluation focuses on three major fields: Spanish, English, and Mathematics.
Teachers are providing live, virtual instruction – like many schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Youth are engaged and communicate directly with their teachers and teacher aides, providing one-on-one assistance as needed. An on-site certified principal conducts - regular checks to ensure successful delivery of services and overall compliance. Each certified teacher is bilingual in English and Spanish, holds a bachelor’s degree, and has a clean criminal background check.
UC Security at Carrizo Springs ICF:
Federal Protective Services (FPS) and off-duty law enforcement officers are utilized to maintain site security from outside entities. Security personnel do not guard youth, nor do they have any interaction with the minors.
About Unaccompanied Children:
Congress has defined a unaccompanied child as a child who (1) has no lawful immigration status in the United States; (2) has not attained 18 years of age; and, (3) with respect to whom, there is no parent or legal guardian in the United States, or no parent or legal guardian in the United States available to provide care and physical custody. See 6 U.S.C. § 279(g)(2).
HHS plays no role in the apprehension or initial detention of UC prior to their referral to HHS custody. For example, HHS does not separate UC from their parents. HHS does not provide care or custody for adult non-citizens or family units that include adults. Children referred to HHS by DHS for care and custody have been identified as unaccompanied, and by definition are not with a parent.
Most UC are referred to ORR by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Some UC may be referred to ORR because they were apprehended by immigration authorities while crossing the border. Others are referred after coming to the attention of DHS in the interior of the United States.
After referral, UC remain in the care and custody of HHS until they are united with a suitable sponsor, usually a parent or close relative, while their immigration cases are adjudicated.
At this time, most UC come primarily from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Part of ORR’s mission is to protect the privacy and ensure the safety of children. Unaccompanied children have different reasons for undertaking the long and dangerous journey to the United States, but in many cases, they are coming to join a parent or other family member already in the United States. Often the unaccompanied child’s parents find someone to bring the child to the United States. Children may also be escaping violent communities or abusive family relationships, but the choice to come to the United States for safe haven, instead of another community or country they travel through, is in many cases driven by U.S. family connections. The ages of these individuals, and the hazardous journey they take, make unaccompanied children especially vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation, and abuse.
To safeguard the privacy of unaccompanied children in ORR care, and consistent with respect to the treatment of any minor child in the U.S., it is ORR’s policy towards the media not to discuss individual cases and to prohibit photography, recordings, videos, or any other images of unaccompanied children to protect privacy and minimize potential dangers to the child and the child’s sponsor.
Members of the public have expressed interest in donating or volunteering to help unaccompanied children. ORR appreciates the outpouring of support; however, the needs of all youth in ORR care are being met as they await reunification. Those who wish to give are encouraged to research local organizations that are providing care and assistance to those in need in border communities. The Appropriations Act for the UC program states:
SEC. 230. The Department of Health and Human Services may accept donations from the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and other groups independent of the Federal Government for the care of unaccompanied alien children (as defined in section 462(g)(2) 11 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (6 U.S.C. 12 279(g)(2))) in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Administration for Children and Families, including medical goods and services, which may include early childhood developmental screenings, school supplies, toys, clothing, and any other items intended to promote the wellbeing of such children (Public Law 116-94).
Donations should be coordinated directly with the ORR LNO.