Advocates demand transparency in Biden migrant facilities
The Biden administration is under pressure to increase transparency around the child migrant facilities near the southern border as journalists and refugee advocates demand photos and access to inspect conditions on the ground.
The White House has faced tough questions all week from frustrated reporters complaining about how ride-alongs at similar facilities that were commonplace during the Trump administration are now being denied by the Department of Homeland Security.
There have been no public photos taken inside the buildings where thousands of children are being kept, though the White House said Wednesday that President Biden has seen pictures taken by an envoy that toured the facilities and later debriefed him.
Photos of detained children sparked outrage under former President Trump, prompting Democrats and activists to accuse him of implementing an inhumane and cruel immigration policy that put “kids in cages.”
The White House says it is committed to transparency but has so far declined to share pictures or expand access to reporters hoping to view firsthand the overcapacity centers.
“The humanitarian crisis at our border is heartbreaking. While Trump is responsible for dismantling and destroying the infrastructure in our refugee and asylum systems, we need President Biden to move faster and to provide additional capacity,” said Yasmine Taeb, a human rights lawyer and advocate for refugees.
“These border facilities are absolutely no place for children, and it’s troubling that more access is not provided to press and advocates seeking information about the conditions of children in overcrowded facilities.”
Clara Long, associate director of Human Rights Watch who works on immigration issues, said the Biden administration needs to make transparency and accountability a priority when it comes to the situation at the border, but that the chief concern at the moment is making sure children are out of peril.
Long said she was disappointed by reports last week that lawyers were not given sufficient access to a tent facility in Donna, Texas, in accordance with a decades-old court agreement that set the standards for government detention of migrant children.
“Transparency should absolutely be part of their short-, medium- and long-term aims,” said Long.
A Biden administration official said Thursday there are 9,562 unaccompanied minors held in facilities run by the Department Health and Human Services (HHS), and an additional 4,500 in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
The administration’s goal is to quickly move children out of CBP custody and into sponsor homes or HHS facilities, where they have access to educational, health and legal services.
But the border surge is straining the system, and media reports indicate children are being kept for days longer than is legally allowed in CBP cells meant for adults.
That development has undercut the Biden administration’s claims that it’s implementing a more humane immigration policy than Trump, whose zero-tolerance policy separated parents from their children and provoked outrage for detaining children in poor conditions at CBP facilities.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has faced a daily barrage of questions about why the administration will not release pictures of the overcrowded facilities and why reporters are being denied tours of the facilities that were allowed under Trump.
In a statement, the CBP told The Hill that the agency is denying external visitors due to COVID-19 protocols — a policy they say was first implemented while Trump was still in office.
“Since March 2020, CBP has discouraged external visitors in CBP facilities, including ride-alongs, due to agency COVID protocols and in order to protect the health and safety of our workforce and those in our care,” an agency spokesperson said. “We are offering and utilizing outdoor interviews or virtual operational briefings.”
However, the border surge has worsened dramatically in Biden’s first few months in office, leading to renewed concern about the safety of children who have made the dangerous trek from Central America without adult family members.
Biden has been briefed by an envoy that toured child migrant facilities last month and was shown pictures of the facilities that the White House has declined to release.
Psaki said Thursday the White House would make members of the envoy available for questions at some point and that the administration would consider ways to allow for “a pool of media to be able to have your own videos or get your own footage of these facilities.”
“We remain committed to transparency and are considering potential options and we hope to have an update soon,” Psaki said.
Advocates say there are signs of progress on other fronts under the new administration. Long pointed to CBP’s decision last week to post monthly data on employee arrests.
“That’s exactly the kind of thing we need to see more of,” Long said.
Still, she said the new administration needs to improve access to CBP facilities and ensure they do not resemble jails in order to make good on Biden’s pledge to implement a more humane immigration policy.
“The history of CBP’s closed-box approach to detention is one that has basically undergirded an enormously abusive system. It’s important to change that, to make that part of the shift that is occurring,” Long said.
Democratic operative Chuck Rocha said he believes Biden is doing everything he can to address the crisis at the border. But he worried that the administration is on the defensive as it explains everything from the new housing for child migrants to the lack of access to facilities, which he said could have negative consequences for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.
“Biden is doing everything he knows how to do, and this has got to be as large a priority for him as COVID is,” Rocha said. “He’s done everything I want him to do so far, but my fear, as a Democratic operative, is that we’re just handing Republicans talking points, and that is driving me crazy.”
“If we’re explaining, then it means we’re already losing with Latino voters,” he added. “It’s my government and my tax dollars, so more transparency is a good thing, whether under Republicans or Democrats.”
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