The Houston Chronicle on the Biden administration's immigration policy and the U.S.-Mexico border:
Here we go again. Thousands of unaccompanied children are being detained at the border, stretching the shelter system to its limits and leaving the government scrambling in crisis mode, prompting one side to complain of “kids in cages” and another to scream for a crackdown.
President Biden faces a challenge that demands striking a balance between border enforcement and humanitarian concern, between slamming the door and living up to America’s reputation as a beacon for the oppressed.
So far, Biden is at least trying to strike a balance and his administration should be commended. But there are no simple solutions and much more must be done to ensure the safety of immigrant children traveling alone.
These kids, many of them teenagers but some much younger, are fleeing violence and poverty. They are making the risky trip from Central America across Mexico in the hopes of being reunited with relatives in America.
The latest numbers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection are alarming. Detentions at the border are up overall, with the agency reporting encounters with 9,457 unaccompanied children last month, up from 5,858 in January. Early data predict March figures will be even higher.
Most unaccompanied minors coming from Mexico eventually are sent back. Those from other countries are turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement to be housed in privately run shelters while the government attempts to place them with a vetted relative living in the United States.
The sudden increase in new arrivals has overwhelmed the system. About 8,500 minors are living in shelters and the government has been unable to add capacity fast enough, leaving nearly 4,000 kids crammed in Border Patrol holding facilities not designed for minors, according to the Washington Post. They are also being held longer than the 72 hours that the law allows.
The simplistic answer to why shelters are overrun is that the Biden administration has reversed President Trump’s get-tough immigration policies, including a reversal of a pandemic plan that turned away all immigrants at the border.
The reality is that immigrant kids did not stop coming to the border during the last four years. As late as May 2019, more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors were detained. Using COVID as an excuse, Trump shut down the border, but nothing changed in Central America. If anything, the pandemic has made a dire situation worse, pushing out immigrants looking for relief.
While Trump’s emergency health order remains for most other illegal border-crossers, an exception was made in January for unaccompanied children. Lifting a bad policy that left kids to fend for themselves in border cities, oftentimes in dangerous conditions, was a good call by the administration, but no good deed comes without consequences.
To meet shelter demand, the administration has reopened a tent facility in Carrizo Springs, southwest of San Antonio. It has converted a camp for oilfield workers in Midland. And it plans to house up to 3,000 minors inside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas. It also wants to reopen a shelter in Florida and set up temporary ones in California and Virginia.
Such shelters have a long history of problems, such as poor transparency, little oversight and allegations of abuse. But accusing Biden of keeping “kids in cages” in Carrizo Springs or equating the move with the family separation policy implemented by the Trump administration is inaccurate.
There’s no evidence that the Biden administration is housing children in the cage-like chain-link partitions that were first used by the Obama administration. Nor have there been reports of the kinds of squalid conditions that were confirmed under Trump, when children at the Clint, Texas shelter lacked enough food and water and were unable to bathe.
Another important distinction: Biden, much like Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, were forced to respond to an influx of children who crossed the border on their own, while Trump made the situation worse by choosing to forcibly separate children who had crossed with parents, thereby rendering accompanied children unaccompanied. Trump also prolonged children’s stay in the facilities by scaring off would-be caretakers with a policy to share their information with immigration officials. Biden has wisely terminated that agreement.
Other smart moves the Biden administration is making include deploying the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the southern border to help care for arriving children and re-instituting an Obama-era plan that reunites Central American children with a parent who is a legal U.S. resident. Nearly 5,000 kids had taken advantage of the program before Trump discontinued it in 2017.
The administration must continue to find ways to speed up the process of transferring minors from Border Patrol custody to shelters to vetted adults while their cases wind their way though the immigration system.
Members of both parties need to offer solutions, not use the increase in immigrant detentions as a political weapon.
After a four-year abdication of our obligation to the world, the federal government is taking America’s laws and responsibilities seriously, but the Biden administration must continue to look for long-term solutions that address the root causes of migration.
Otherwise, we’ll see you at the next crisis.