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Biden admin. considers using Virginia military base to house migrant children amid sharp rise in arrivals

The US Department of Health and Human Services said it must "aggressively" find solutions for the rising number of children crossing the southern border. (file photo)

The administration of US President Joe Biden is considering using a military base in Virginia to house unaccompanied migrant children detained at the southern border, according to a report.

Shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have reached near capacity amid a sharp rise in the number of migrant children entering the United States at the US-Mexico border.

In a notice issued on Friday and seen by Reuters, HHS said it urgently needs to find more shelter space for unaccompanied minors, adding that it must “aggressively” find solutions for the rising number of children arriving at the southern border amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that Fort Lee, a US Army facility about 30 miles (48 km) south of Richmond, was being evaluated to be used as shelter.

The Biden administration has notified facilities housing migrant children that they can start operating to pre-pandemic levels in order to address the “extraordinary circumstances.”

“We recognize the challenge of having these unaccompanied children come across the border and the influx that we're certainly preparing for and, and preparing to approach,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday.

There are approximately 7,700 unaccompanied children in HHS shelters. The department has around 13,650 beds, but it can only use only about half of those over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

Children arriving at the border are being kept at Border Patrol custody for longer than three days on average, before HHS can house the minors at other facilities until they can be relocated with family or a sponsor in the US.

HHS also recently opened an overflow facility in Texas to house minors entering the US without a parent or relative.

US border agents detained nearly 100,000 migrants at the southern border last month, the highest monthly total since a major border surge in mid-2019, which former president Donald Trump cited as justification for a broad immigration crackdown.

The Trump administration rounded hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers trying to enter the United States at the southern border and sent them back to Mexico.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday that the deported asylum seekers have suffered violence and extortion by Mexican police, immigration agents and criminal groups.

“President Joe Biden should ensure that plans to phase out Remain in Mexico include asylum seekers whose cases were unfairly terminated while they were in Mexico and end the policy under which the US expels migrants to Mexico without due process,” RHW said.

Republicans in Congress have criticized Biden for rolling back Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration approach, saying the shift will lead to more illegal immigration.

In a letter to Biden on Friday, Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, voiced “great concern” over the Biden administration’s border policy and requested a meeting with the president to discuss the issue.

“We must acknowledge the border crisis, develop a plan, and, in no uncertain terms, strongly discourage individuals from Mexico and Central America from ever making the dangerous journey to our southern border,” McCarthy wrote in the letter.

A Trump-era policy known as Title 42, issued under the pretext of public health concerns during the pandemic, allowed US immigration authorities to rapidly expel migrants caught crossing the border. In some cases, migrants attempt to cross the border again.

Biden exempted unaccompanied children from the policy in February.

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