President Joe Biden has been housing unaccompanied alien children from the Southern border at temporary facilities at military bases, and reports from child advocates and people who’ve worked at the facilities are harrowing.

Why are we housing migrant children at military bases, and why are we apparently treating them so poorly?

What does it portend for treatment of migrant children under the Biden administration?


A surge in the appearance of unaccompanied alien children at the southern border has overwhelmed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), making it very difficult to provide proper care for the children.

The number of unaccompanied alien children apprehended at the border nearly doubled from 4,852 in December 2020 (the last full month of the Trump administration) to 9,266 in February 2021 (the first full month in the Biden administration). It rose again to 18,723 in March, was 16,908 in April, 13,892 in May, and 15,018 in June.

Two statutes and a legal settlement agreement require CBP to transfer unaccompanied alien children to ORR within 72 hours of their apprehension. This does not apply to children from contiguous countries. ORR is responsible for the children’s care until they can be placed with sponsors, usually family members, who will maintain custody over them while they wait for an immigration hearing.

ORR has licensed detention centers for unaccompanied alien children with a total of more than 13,500 beds, but the adjusted space requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic limited the number of children it can place at its licensed detention facilities.

And the demand for bed space has gone up. As of July 15, there were approximately 14,920 unaccompanied alien children in ORR custody. At the end of May, the system-wide average length of time these children were spending in ORR’s shelters was 35 days.

Consequently, ORR had to set up emergency housing facilities. This has included military bases in TexasJoint Base San Antonio in Lackland and Fort Bliss in El Paso.

Previous presidents also have had to resort to using military bases for detaining unaccompanied alien children; in fact, the Obama/Biden administration did it. According to the Congressional Research Service, nearly 16,000 unaccompanied alien children were housed at military bases between 2012 and 2017, because existing shelters were overwhelmed by the number of children being apprehended at the border.

This time, however, Biden is the one who is responsible for ensuring that the children will receive proper care, and he doesn’t seem to be able to meet that responsibility.

Biden’s use of military bases


Published originally on the Hill.

Nolan Rappaport was detailed to the House Judiciary Committee as an Executive Branch Immigration Law Expert for three years. He subsequently served as an immigration counsel for the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims for four years. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals for 20 years. Follow him at