The release of "sobering" photos from inside a U.S. detention facility is boosting alarm about the Biden administration's response to an influx of migrants—particularly unaccompanied children who aren't being deported under a public health law—and its refusal to allow reporters access to what one journalist called "border jails."
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) shared the photos—taken over the weekend at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) overflow facility in Donna, Texas—with Axios, which noted Monday that they "reveal the crowded, makeshift conditions at the border as the government's longer-term child shelters and family detention centers fill up."
Photos of children packed into makeshift detention centers highlight the need for press access to such centers so people can see the "inhumanity" in US immigration policy. https://t.co/sSoIBYmZLK
— MALDEF (@MALDEF) March 23, 2021
Cuellar, who did not tour the facility or take the photos, said the setting is "terrible conditions for the children" and although U.S. Border Patrol agents are "doing the best they can under the circumstances," they are "not equipped to care for kids" and "need help from the administration." He called for minors to be quickly transferred to the relevant Department of Health and Human Services office.
CBP, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency, is supposed to transfer most unaccompanied children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within 72 hours. However, thousands of minors have recently been held past that legal limit. As of Saturday, according to a DHS document leaked to Axios, 3,314 children had been in custody longer than three days, 2,226 more than five days, and 823 over 10 days.
Advocates including Denise Bell, Amnesty International USA's researcher for refugee and migrant rights, have also stressed that that detaining unaccompanied children in ORR facilities "cannot become status quo" because "kids need a place to call home," and pushed for placing minors with families, friends, and community members in the U.S.
“While children are in the custody of the United States government, we need to make sure they’re getting adequate care and attention.”
— Families Belong Together (@fams2gether) March 22, 2021
Appearing on "The View" Monday, NBC News and MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff—author of Separated: Inside an American Tragedy, a book on former President Donald Trump's immigration policies—first addressed the Axios reporting, saying: "Those are horrific photos. Those are the circumstances I think all of us who follow this closely sort of knew that the children were in. Part of the problem is the Biden administration isn't letting us in to go see them for ourselves."
"These are Border Patrol facilities just like the Trump administration used during separations," Soboroff explained. "That's not the facility I was in where they caged children—that facility's closed for renovations, believe it or not, under a congressional appropriations bill—but this is the same type of punitive, jail-like facility operated by the Border Patrol agents who are there as law enforcement agents. They wear guns on their hip... that's what this is."
"The facilities themselves are the same types of facilities, and it's why it's problematic we're not able to go in and show for ourselves what it is the Biden administration says they want to change," he continued. The journalist added that denying reporters access to the facilities is "a huge mistake" and he doesn't think Covid-19 is "a good excuse" because visitors can wear personal protective equipment including face masks.
As Soboroff put it: "If senators can go in there with the secretary of homeland security, why can't journalists?"
Here’s the second half of my conversation this morning with @TheView team about the situation at the border — we specifically discuss the leaked photos of the overcrowded Border Patrol facility. pic.twitter.com/i1Bjb9310E
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— Jacob Soboroff (@jacobsoboroff) March 22, 2021
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Friday was joined by two senators from each party to observe the processing, shelter, and transfer of unaccompanied children in El Paso, Texas. Among them was Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who said he "fought back tears" at the CBP facility where he observed hundreds of "kids packed into big open rooms."
A CBP official said the agency on Tuesday released 44 new photos and two videos from inside facilities in El Paso and Donna in an effort to "balance the need for public transparency and accountability," but the agency also continues to "discourage external visitors," including journalists, to facilities that house migrant children.
Asked about media access during a briefing Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that "I hope to have an update in the coming days. We are working... with the Department of Health and Human Services and also the Department of Homeland Security, to ensure privacy and ensure we're following Covid protocols. We remain committed to transparency, and, of course, as I noted last week, we certainly want to make sure that the media has access to these sites."
Echoing Mayorkas' comments in recent days, Psaki added that the photos released by Cuellar "show what we've long been saying, which is that these Border Patrol facilities are not places made for children. They are not places that we want children to be staying for an extended period of time. Our alternative is to send children back on this treacherous journey. That is not, in our view, the right choice to make."
DHS Chief Mayorkas places blame on the Trump admin for the current surge in migrants at the border: "There was a system in place in both Republican and Democratic administrations that was torn down during the Trump administration" #CNNSOTU https://t.co/oZKfufDioC pic.twitter.com/617RAvysBP
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) March 21, 2021
Psaki also pushed back against GOP characterizations of overcrowded facilities and delayed processing of children, saying that "children presenting at our border who are fleeing violence, who are fleeing prosecution, who are fleeing terrible situations, is not a crisis. We feel that it is our responsibility to humanely approach this circumstance and make sure they are treated... and put into conditions that are safe."
The Week's Ryan Cooper noted in a column Tuesday that too many mainstream media outlets are bolstering Republicans' bad-faith and xenophobic outrage by treating the current situation as a chaotic crisis even when its origins are quite clear.
According to Cooper:
But fundamentally, even with this recent surge of migrants, we are not talking about that many people. There were huge flows of unauthorized immigration during the Bush administration, with numbers regularly many times as large as those seen under President Trump.
"It's true that it would be much cheaper and simpler to deflate the frenzy of media hysteria by doing what Trump did—basically closing the border, throwing penniless refugees back over it, and forcing Mexico to deal with the problem," Cooper concluded. "Dealing with migrants in a fair and humane fashion will require money, patience, and good administration. But how better to solve a fake crisis created by Republicans and bored occupants of green rooms in Washington, D.C. than with a fake solution?"