WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s administration has tried for weeks to block the public from seeing images like those that emerged Monday showing immigrant children detained in the United States at the border sleeping on mats under aluminum covers, separated into groups by plastic partitions.
Administration officials have staunchly refused to call the detention of more than 15,000 children in the United States, or the conditions in which they live, a crisis. But they thwarted most outsiders’ efforts to decide for themselves.
Authorities barred nonprofit watchdog lawyers from entering a Border Patrol tent where thousands of children and teenagers are being held. And federal agencies have refused or ignored dozens of requests for access to media detention sites. Such access has been repeatedly granted by the administration of President Donald Trump, whose restrictive approach to immigration Biden has pledged to reverse.
The new president is facing growing criticism for the apparent secrecy on the border, including from fellow Democrats.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Monday that “the administration is committed to transparency to ensure the media has the opportunity to report on all aspects of what is happening. cross the border”.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki added that the White House was working with Homeland Security officials and the Department of Health and Human Services to “finalize the details” and that she hoped to have a update in the “coming days”.
Axios on Monday released for the first time a series of photos taken inside the Border Patrol’s largest detention center, a sprawling tent in the South Texas town of Donna. The photos were released by Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat from the border town of Laredo.
Cuellar said he released the photos in part because the administration denied media access to the Donna tent. He said he also wanted to draw attention to the extreme challenges border agents face monitoring so many children, sometimes for a week or more, despite the Border Patrol’s three-day limit on detention. of minors.
“We have to take care of these children as if they were our own children,” Cuellar said.
Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the United States should allow media access to border facilities while respecting the privacy of immigrants detained inside. He noted the risk of sharing images of children who have already experienced trauma without permission.
“We have to be aware of these conditions,” Saenz said. “People need to see them so they can assess the inhumanity and hopefully embark on more humane policies.”
The White House prides itself on its methodical rollout of policy in its first 50 days, but West Wing aides privately acknowledge they were caught off guard by the influx of migrants at the border and the resulting media furor.
Republican lawmakers have largely ignored debate over the administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. Although none of them voted for the package, their opposition was silenced and they instead focused on culture war issues, such as the debate over racial stereotypes in some of Dr. Seuss’s books, rather than on a bill widely popular with GOP voters.
But the GOP grabbed the border situation with both hands, reigniting the issue that was key to propelling Trump to the top of the Republican field in 2016. In 2018, the Trump administration detained hundreds of children in many of the same facilities being used now after separating them from their parents. The following year, hundreds of families and children detained at a West Texas border crossing spent days without adequate food, water or soap.
Biden upheld a Trump-era public health order and deported thousands of immigrant adults and families, but he refused to deport immigrant children without parents after a federal appeals court told him paved the way in January. He also took steps to expedite the reunification of hundreds of separated immigrant families.
“What Trump did was horrible,” Cuellar said. “These images show you that even with our best intentions, and the Biden administration has the best intentions, it’s still very difficult.”
Cuellar said the White House needs to work more with Mexico and Central America to prevent people from leaving their home countries. The White House said Monday that key officials would visit Mexico and Guatemala this week.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who visited a facility in El Paso, Texas, last week, told NPR, “We want to make sure the press has access to hold the administration accountable.”
The Associated Press has requested access to border facilities for more than a month. Reporters first asked Health and Human Services on Feb. 4 to allow entry to a reopened rescue center in Carrizo Springs, Texas, holding hundreds of teenagers. And they asked Homeland Security officials for access to Border Patrol facilities at least seven times, with no response. The PA has also asked PSAKI to open the border facilities.
Border agencies under Trump have allowed limited media tours of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services facilities. Several of these visits revealed disturbing conditions inside, including the detention of large numbers of children as young as 5 years old separated from their parents.
Under Biden, agencies have also denied full access to nonprofit attorneys who monitor facilities where children are held. These monitoring visits take place pursuant to a Federal Court settlement.
When lawyers visited the Donna Border Patrol facility this month, where thousands of children are currently being held, officers refused to let them in and the Justice Department said they would not had no right to access it. The lawyers were forced to question the children outside. The Justice Department declined to comment.
Photos recently released by Cuellar’s office show groups of children crammed inside the partitions. Some appear to be watching TV while others are lying on floor mats, some side by side. The children wear surgical masks but are close to each other.
The Donna facility consists of large interconnected tents. Aerial photos taken by AP show enclosed outdoor spaces where children can go. But lawyers who have interviewed children detained at Donna say some can go days without being allowed out.
The administration is rushing to open up more space to get about 5,000 children out of Border Patrol detention and into more youth-friendly health and social services facilities. He also attempted to expedite the release of children in HHS custody to parents and other sponsors in the United States. But border agents continue to apprehend many more children a day than HHS releases, even though more than 40% of young people in the system have a parent. or legal guardian who could take them.
Meanwhile, the administration is seeing its emergency facilities for immigrant children approach capacity almost as quickly as it can open them. The downtown Dallas convention center has 1,500 teens less than a week after opening and is expected to welcome 500 more teens on Monday, according to HHS. Its current capacity is 2,300 people.
Lemire reported from New York and Merchant reported from Houston.