White House defends reopening of facility for migrant kids

White House press secretary Jen Psaki
Getty Images

The White House on Tuesday defended the reopening of a facility at the southern border to house migrant teenagers, insisting it was a temporary measure necessitated by the pandemic.

The Biden administration reopened the facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas to house up to 700 migrants ages 13 to 17, the Department of Health and Human Services announced late Monday, with the first unaccompanied children arriving the same day.

The decision rankled immigration advocates and sparked allegations of hypocrisy given President Biden and administration officials have vigorously condemned the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant kids at the border and its immigration policies more broadly.

“To ensure the health and safety of these kids, [the Department of Health and Human Services] took steps to open an emergency facility to add capacity where these kids can be provided the care they need before they are safely placed with families and sponsors,” press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing with reporters. “So it’s a temporary reopening during COVID-19, our intention is very much to close it, but we want to make sure we can follow COVID protocols.”

The Biden administration does not expel unaccompanied minors who arrive at the border, Psaki said, so they are transferred to the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement. The additional Texas facility, which was open for one month during the Trump administration, was needed to accommodate migrant children in compliance with social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.

As of last Friday, there are roughly 6,800 unaccompanied children in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to HHS.

“Our goal is for them to then be transferred to families or sponsors,” Psaki said. “So, this is our effort to ensure that kids are not in close proximity and that we are abiding by the health and safety standards that the government has been set out.”

Psaki rejected that housing the kids at the 66-acre site was akin to holding “kids in cages.”

“That is never our intention of replicating the immigration policies of the past administration,” Psaki said. “But we are in a circumstance where we are not going to expel unaccompanied minors at the border. That would be inhumane. That is not what we’re going to do here as an administration. We need to find places that are safe under COVID protocols for kids to be where they can have access to education, health and mental services, consistent with their best interest.”

The Trump administration drew intense bipartisan blowback in 2018 when it enforced a “zero tolerance” policy that led thousands of migrant children to be separated from their parents and held in warehouse facilities. Images of children behind metal fencing prompted an outcry, and then-President Trump eventually relented on the policy.

While Biden is not enforcing the same policy, the decision to reopen a migrant facility that was used under Trump has sparked criticism and drawn renewed attention to the comments the president and Vice President Harris made during the campaign.

Biden blasted Trump repeatedly for separating families and failing to reunite them, decrying during an October debate that migrant children were “ripped from their [parents’] arms and separated.”

Harris, then a senator, said in 2018 at the peak of the family separation controversy that Trump’s treatment of migrants was a “crime against humanity.”

Biden signed an executive order earlier this month establishing a task force to reunite migrant families that had been separated under Trump’s zero tolerance policy.

Updated at 2:22 p.m. 

Tags Border crisis Donald Trump Immigration Jen Psaki Joe Biden zero tolerance policy

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