Calling for any immigration or refugee policy at the U.S. border impacting unaccompanied minors to put the "child's best interests" first and foremost, Amnesty International on Tuesday responded to the Biden administration's reopening of a controversial detention center in Texas by warning against any return to the cruel and unacceptable conditions of the past.
Detaining young immigrants who enter the country without an adult guardian in facilities like the recently reopened one in Carrizo Springs "cannot become status quo for children," Denise Bell, Amnesty International USA's researcher for refugee and migrant rights, said in a statement.
"A government agency is not a parent for children. We don't want them held in detention or in facilities that don't meet their best interests."
—Denise Bell, Amnesty
"The reality is that children who are alone need to be accommodated for their safety while the government identifies and reunites them with appropriate sponsors," said Bell. "We don't want to endanger children."
At the same time, "a government agency is not a parent for children," Bell continued. "We don't want them held in detention or in facilities that don't meet their best interests."
"Kids need a place to call home," she added. "That's why they should be with their families, friends, and community members; this in the child's best interests."
Bell was responding to reporting by The Washington Post, which noted that "a vestige of the Trump administration that was open for only a month in summer 2019... is being reactivated to hold up to 700 children ages 13 to 17."
"Government officials say the camp is needed because facilities for migrant children have had to cut capacity by nearly half because of the coronavirus pandemic," the Post reported. "At the same time, the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border has been inching up, with January reporting the highest total—more than 5,700 apprehensions—for that month in recent years."
The Post noted, however, that "immigration lawyers and advocates question why the Biden administration would choose to reopen a Trump-era facility that was the source of protests and controversy. From the 'tent city' in Tornillo, Texas, to a sprawling for-profit facility in Homestead, Florida, emergency shelters have been criticized by advocates for immigrants, lawyers, and human rights activists over their conditions, cost, and lack of transparency in their operations."
Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio-based immigration lawyer who represents unaccompanied minors, told the newspaper that "it's unnecessary, it's costly, and it goes absolutely against everything [President Joe] Biden promised he was going to do. It's a step backward, is what it is. It's a huge step backward."
During his campaign, Biden pledged to undo former President Donald Trump's xenophobic immigration agenda.
Although the Biden administration has come under fire for unveiling immigration enforcement guidelines that rights groups say enable the continuation of unjust deportations, Biden has also received praise for reversing Trump's inhumane "Remain in Mexico" policy for asylum-seekers and for introducing a plan to provide 11 million undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship.
Mark Weber—a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the government agency that manages services for migrant children—told the Post that "the Biden administration is moving away from the 'law-enforcement focused' approach of the Trump administration to one in which child welfare is more centric."
The Post reported that "HHS has 13,200 beds for children, having exploded in growth in the past four years—adding more than 80 facilities for a total of about 200... As of Sunday, there were about 7,000 children in HHS custody, over 90% capacity under pandemic-era requirements."
Weber, who called "every kid that comes into this program... a symptom of a broken immigration system," told the newspaper that it's better to place unaccompanied migrant children in permanent shelters rather than temporary influx shelters, but almost half of the beds in permanent centers cannot be used due to the pandemic.
As the Post reported:
Weber said the facilities received a bad rap under the Trump administration because many people associated them with the detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But the children always received good care and that never wavered between administrations, he said.
The majority of child migrant facilities are subject to state licensing requirements; temporary influx centers like Carrizo are not. However, Weber said Carrizo would "meet or exceed" Texas licensing standards if applicable. The influx facilities also cost more: about $775 a day per child compared with $290 a day for permanent centers.
Weber said the influx shelters keep children from ending up in Border Patrol stations, which have holding cells that were not designed for children. During the 2019 immigration surge, many migrants were stuck in overcrowded cells for prolonged periods that exceeded legal limits.
The detention centers overseen by ICE are reserved for adults or families and often are run by private prison companies. Carrizo Springs is run by the nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services, a government contractor for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency within HHS that focuses on unaccompanied children.
Most of these children arrive to the United States planning to reunite with sponsors—usually relatives or friends of the family. Office of Refugee Resettlement case managers work with the children to identify and conduct background checks on the sponsors. If cleared, children are released to live with them while they go through the immigration court process.
Rosey Abuabara, a community activist in San Antonio who was arrested for protesting outside the Carrizo facility in 2019, told the newspaper that she "cried... when I read they were opening again."
"I consoled myself with the fact that it was considered the Cadillac of [migrant child] centers," Abuabara added, "but I don't have any hope that Biden is going to make it better."
Brandmiller claimed the government intentionally locates the detention facilities "in places that are not only not readily accessible, but not accessible at all to anyone who cares about the quality of life of these kids, and whether or not they comply with the federal law."
The Post reported that HHS wants to limit the duration that children are detained at the Carrizo camp to "about 30 days, though they are coming from at least two weeks of quarantine at other Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities in the region. The average stay for children in custody across its facilities is 42 days. In the 2020 fiscal year, migrant children spent an average of 102 days in federal government custody, according to HHS."
Bell of Amnesty said "the Biden administration has inherited a system that holds unaccompanied children in temporary facilities and it will take time to move away from the system."
"It is important," Bell said, for the administration to "limit their use and move quickly towards relying only on licensed facilities." In addition, she asserted, "services in temporary facilities, like the permanent facilities, must include educational services, medical services, legal services, case management, clinicians, and services that support the security and health of the children."