Record number of migrant children held in Border Patrol custody as cases climb

WASHINGTON -- The number of unaccompanied migrant children in US Border Patrol facilities intended for adults climbed on Tuesday, surpassing record highs from the previous day, according to new figures reviewed by CNN.

More than 3,400 unaccompanied migrant children were in Customs and Border Protection custody, according to the data dated Tuesday.

Of those, around 2,800 were awaiting placement in shelters suitable for minors, but there were just under 500 beds available to accommodate them -- startling figures that demonstrates how deep the challenge is for the Biden White House.

More than 440 unaccompanied migrant children were arrested Tuesday, a CBP official said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to confirm Tuesday's numbers or characterize this as a "crisis."

"What I also think is important is to talk about what the root causes are here and what we're doing from a policy standpoint to try and address the challenges that we're facing and that these kids are facing as they come across the border," she said Tuesday.

Psaki also said that the team of senior officials who traveled to tour facilities on Saturday still have not briefed President Joe Biden on the situation amid a surge of unaccompanied minors at the US-Mexico border.

"They are going to do a meeting, of course, and give the President a full rundown of what they saw on the ground, a trip that he asked them to take and I'll let them do that before we have more specifics," she said at Tuesday's press briefing.

The growing number of unaccompanied children has raised alarm bells among officials scrambling to find shelter space to care for kids amid an ongoing pandemic that resulted in some locations keeping some beds unoccupied to comply with health guidelines.

This week's data reveals the continued bottleneck in the system, with more children coming into custody than the US government is prepared to care for. It also emphasizes the hurdles facing the Biden administration as it tries to strike a more humanitarian approach on immigration while juggling the realities on the border.

The numbers are overwhelming. To compare, at the peak of the 2019 border crisis -- when there were overcrowded facilities and children sleeping on the ground -- there were around 2,600 unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody, a former CBP official told CNN.

A myriad of reasons can account for the sudden rise in children at the US-Mexico border, including the pandemic's dramatic toll on Latin America, where economies once projected to grow have been decimated, the results of two devastating hurricanes that hit the region, and a perception of relaxed enforcement by the Biden administration.

After being taken into Border Patrol custody, unaccompanied children have to be turned over within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is tasked with the care of migrant children, barring exceptional circumstances.

Once in care, case managers will work to place children with a sponsor, like a parent or relative, in the US, but as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and precautions to avoid spread of Covid-19, the department has until recently only been able to use a little more than half of the beds it has for children.