March 14 (UPI) -- The Biden administration has directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help process the surge in unaccompanied minors who have crossed into the country via the U.S. southwestern border.
The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement Saturday that Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed FEMA to support receiving, sheltering and transferring unaccompanied children who have entered the country.
"The federal government is working around the clock to move unaccompanied children from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' care and to place them with a family member or sponsor until their immigration case is adjudicated," it said.
The department said FEMA was being deployed for 90 days as since April of last year the number of people entering the country has been climbing due to instability caused by violence, natural disasters, poverty and food insecurity in Central America.
Mayorkas said addressing the needs of unaccompanied children at the border has become more difficult due to health protocols and restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic .
"Our goal is to ensure that unaccompanied children are transferred to HHS as quickly as possible, consistent with legal requirements and in the best interest of the children," he said, adding, "a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child."
Last week, CBP published enforcement data that showed 9,457 unaccompanied minors were detained at the border in February, an increase of several thousand from the 3,490 detained during February of 2020.
Roberta Jacobson, special assistant to the president and the coordinator for the southern border, told reporters last week after announcing the relaunch of a program to reunite migrant children with their parents in the United States, said she doesn't think it is a coincidence the surge is occurring under the Biden administration.
"I certainly think that the idea that a more humane policy would be in place may have driven people to make that decision," she said while reiterating that people should not try to enter the country illegally.
The surge has prompted Republicans to criticize the Biden administration over its handling of the border with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy requesting a meeting with the president.
"I feel compelled to express great concern with the manner in which your administration is approaching this crisis, but with hope that we can work together to solve it," he wrote in a letter dated March 5, accusing the Biden administration of sending mix-signals to those who may consider trying to enter the country illegally.
Mayorkas said during a press briefing on March 1 that those who wish to seek protection in the United States shouldn't attempt entering now "because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible."
McCarthy suggested in his letter that this was a signal encouraging illegal entry, and that "there is never a 'right time' to enter the country illegally."
"Signaling otherwise is reckless and will make the situation worse," McCarthy wrote.
Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the surge on Sunday with ABC News' This Week "a humanitarian challenge" and that she is pleased the Biden administration has deployed FEMA to aid with the processing of migrant children at the border.
"What the administration has inherited is a broken system at the border and they are working to correct that in the children's interest," she said. "So, this again, is a transition from what was wrong before to what is right."
Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, also defended the Biden administration on Sunday, telling CNN's State of the Union that the flow of people to the border was present also during the Trump administration.
"What we are seeing today is the consequence of four years of dismantling every system in place to address this with humanity and compassion," she said. "The Biden administration is working day and night to do it."