(CNN)For a month, Meybelin has lived in a massive convention center located in the heart of San Diego. There, along with hundreds of other migrant children, she waits day in and day out to be released to a relative in the United States, frequently calling her parents in El Salvador distraught about the prolonged wait.
Meybelin, 17, is one of the more than 20,000 minors in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services as a result of a record number of unaccompanied children and teenagers arriving at the US southern border this year. The Biden administration has scrambled to assist the department’s already-strained resources and are using a host of novel locations, like convention centers, to shelter minors.
While the administration has made inroads in quickly transferring children out of jail-like Border Patrol facilities, it now faces another daunting challenge: reuniting an unprecedented number of children with family or guardians in the United States.
In more than 80% of cases, children who cross the US-Mexico border alone have a family member in the US, according to the Department of Homeland Security. But getting them to those relatives is a timely and often arduous process.
Officials have been grappling with the situation along the US-Mexico border and its ramifications since the early days of the administration, as an increasing number of migrants, particularly children, arrived. The administration faced swift criticism from both sides of the aisle for their handling of the border. Republicans seized on Biden’s immigration policies, arguing they’re encouraging migrants to journey north, while immigrant advocates slammed officials for continuing to rely on a Trump-era policy that allows the swift expulsion of single adults and families attempting to illegally cross the US southern border.
On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on the actions that have been taken to address the influx of minors at the US-Mexico border.
For now, border arrests appear to have leveled off, but hurdles remain. Federal documents obtained by CNN reveal shortages in the number of case managers needed at six temporary facilities, including the San Diego site, for the number of children in care, as well as an ongoing need to continue building bed capacity for children.
For the children, the reunification process can be dizzying. Meybelin’s case, according to her family’s attorney, has bounced around to different case managers, pushing back her release and raising concerns among her family and attorney who say she suffers trauma after being attacked in El Salvador.
“What’s frustrating about this case is there’s a natural brother here, there’s an attorney who knows what they’re doing. But we’re getting a run around. You might expect that if you’re calling Amazon about a lost package, but this is a child,” said Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, an immigration attorney based in Texas, referring to Meybelin’s older brother.
Meybelin’s parents, Jose and Mirna, spent roughly three weeks fretting over the whereabouts of their 17-year-old daughter who had fled their home country of El Salvador to journey to the US after, they say, she was attacked and the family threatened. CNN is only using their first names due to privacy concerns.
“It hurt,” Jose told CNN in Spanish, as he broke down crying. “My daughter is young. I don’t know if we’ll see her again.”
Jose said he called the Office of Refugee Resettlement hotline every day, around the clock, to try to locate their daughter after she crossed the US-Mexico border. “We called every day. They said we could call 24 hours,” he said.
Since Meybelin was transferred to the San Diego Convention Center, they’ve been able to connect almost weekly, but only for about 10 minutes at a time.
The average time it takes to reunite a child with a sponsor is about 30 days, though officials are trying to shave off time. DHS is participating in an inter-agency task force focused on reuniting kids with their sponsors to identify what support they can lend, a senior Homeland Security official told CNN.
Sponsors, like parents, relatives, or guardians, have to submit paperwork and undergo vetting. Case managers, meanwhile, gather a child’s details and help reunite him/her with a sponsor in the US. But in some cases, young children might arrive with little or no information to identify them.
“[The reunification process] is extremely complicated and there have been other kids we meet with who didn’t come with any information about their families. In those cases, case managers have to act as d
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