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Biden faces pressure to end border facility media blackout

The Biden administration is under growing pressure to end the media blackout at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities where thousands of child migrants are being held.

Lawmakers, high-profile anchors and reporters, and press advocacy groups are venting frustration with the Biden administration for refusing to allow access to facilities where thousands of unaccompanied minors are being held in overflow cells meant for adults for longer than is legally allowed.

Citing COVID-19 and privacy concerns, the Biden administration has ended the practice of media ride-alongs with border officials. Reporters and photographers are being denied entrance to the CBP facilities that first became controversial under former President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE’s "zero tolerance" policy separating parents from their children.

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While dozens of lawmakers have been able to tour the facilities, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has refused to allow even a small number of reporters or photographers to get a first-hand look of conditions on the ground.

“When the government shuts out journalists, it is shutting out the public whom it is responsible for serving,” said Dan Shelley, executive director for the Radio Television Digital News Association. “The Biden administration promised to be the most transparent in modern history. In reality, it turns out, at least on this issue, not so much. That’s not just sad, it’s inexcusable.”

White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiBlinken speaks with Israeli counterpart amid escalating conflict Hillicon Valley: Feds eye more oversight of pipelines after Colonial attack | White House monitoring fuel shortages | Democrats urge Facebook to reverse WhatsApp update | Biden announces deal with Uber, Lyft for free vaccine rides Biden sent letter to Palestinian president over 'current situations' MORE has faced a daily barrage of questions from reporters about why they’re being denied access.

Psaki on Tuesday said the administration would at some point grant access to the facilities, likely through a press pool, but the White House has not given a timeline for that.

“We're working to finalize those details,” Psaki said.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasUS officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack DHS establishes domestic terror unit within its intelligence office Overnight Energy: Southeast sees gas shortages amid pipeline shutdown | Feds eye more oversight of pipelines after Colonial attack | Biden administration approves major offshore wind project MORE, who visited the border with a bipartisan group of lawmakers last week, has vigorously defended the policy barring journalists from the facilities.

In a testy exchange Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mayorkas argued that the coronavirus pandemic is still a major concern and that border officials are focused on more important things.

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“We are still in the midst of the pandemic,” Mayorkas said.

“Border Patrol agents are focused on operations, on securing the border, on addressing the needs of vulnerable children,” he added. “We are not focused on ride-alongs right now.”

The U.S. is in custody of more than 15,000 unaccompanied minors that have arrived at the southern border seeking entry to the U.S. in recent weeks.

Under Trump, reporters and photographers captured images of children being kept in CBP facilities that provoked outrage and demands for reform.

Journalists have not been allowed access to the same facilities under Biden, and until this week there were no public pictures of the overflow facilities.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) on Monday morning released a couple of photographs he obtained as part of a congressional delegation to the border.

Under pressure to provide additional photos of the facilities, CBP released 44 images and two videos on Tuesday morning showing young people sleeping under space blankets on hard floors in overcrowded cells.

The CBP said it continues to “discourage external visitors” at the facilities  including journalists  but that it released the new photos in an effort to “balance the need for public transparency and accountability.”

But government-supplied images are viewed as inadequate by many in the press.

MSNBC’s Katy Tur said the lack of media access is “very frustrating.”

CNN’s Jake TapperJacob (Jake) Paul TapperClyburn says he's willing to compromise on qualified immunity in policing bill GOP divided over expected Cheney ouster GOP governor says Republican Party has to allow for differences MORE aimed his frustration directly at President BidenJoe BidenKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' US officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack MORE.

“We saw this rare look inside these facilities since the Biden administration has not granted news media access to the facilities, citing COVID restrictions, despite the president’s promise in his inaugural distress to always level with you,” Tapper said.

“Blocking access to the news media is not leveling with the American people, Mr. President,” he added.

The administration’s line that journalists are being kept out due to COVID-19 protocols is not cutting it with many in the industry, who are questioning why lawmakers are allowed to go during the pandemic.

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Getty special images correspondent John Moore wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on Monday detailing how the access he had to CBP facilities over the past four presidential administrations has been completely shut down under Biden.

He dismissed the notion that COVID-19 concerns should block reporters from viewing the facilities.

“If such tours are possible for politicians, they also are for journalists,” Moore wrote.

“We have a better understanding of the ways in which the virus spreads: Wearing masks and keeping windows open in vehicles greatly alleviates the danger. And yet now access has been eliminated completely.”

Lawmakers are exerting their own pressure on the Biden administration to open up to journalists.

Democratic Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyKabul attack spurs fears over fate of Afghan women as US exits Sen. Murphy calls for Yemen's Houthis to accept ceasefire following trip to Middle East US, Iran signal possible breakthroughs in nuke talks MORE (Conn.), who visited the border last week along with a bipartisan delegation, told NPR that it’s “something that we should all press the administration to do better on.”

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill Senate descends into hours-long fight over elections bill Ocasio-Cortez hits Yang over scrapped Eid event: 'Utterly shameful' MORE (R-Texas), who is leading a delegation of 14 lawmakers to the border this week, has been among the most vocal calling for press access.

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“It is not enough for members of the Senate to see what is happening—the American people must see,” Cruz wrote in a letter to the White House this week. “That is why I requested that members of the media be allowed to join us. But your administration clearly and emphatically refused to offer press access. This is outrageous and hypocritical.”

Media experts are apoplectic, noting that the Trump administration, which was hostile toward the press, allowed access to the facilities despite the drubbing they took in the media.

“The Biden White House has been incredibly successful limiting access and limiting any real news from coming out of the administration,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications.

“There are only so many times they can repeat the White House mantra that it is Trump’s fault. Evolving policy such as no COVID testing and sending many migrants to expensive hotels will force the media and the White House to provide more realistic coverage of the story.”