President Joe Biden has made big promises on immigration, committing his administration to reversing the last four years of cruelty by his predecessor. True, things are better than they were under former President Donald Trump — but that's not exactly a high bar to clear. Instead, one month into his term, it's starting to look like Biden overpromised on rapid changes to an immigration system groaning under the strain of decades of neglect, abuse and competing priorities under outdated laws.
Case in point: The Washington Post reported Monday that the Biden administration has reopened a facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, to house migrant teens who crossed the border without adults.
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. 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 response online was visceral. Talk of the government's holding kids in custody immediately triggered flashbacks to the Trump administration's detention of minors, the "kids in cages" separated from their parents. White House press secretary Jen Psaki tried to distance the Biden administration's facility from the cramped, dirty detention centers intended for adults that were filled to the brim in 2018 under Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy. It didn't exactly work.
It's easy to see why that's the first thing that jumps to mind — families' being broken up as they were under the child separation policy was a blight on our collective morality. It's a good thing that people are vigilant about preventing anything like it from ever happening again. But unlike in 2018, these aren't kids who've been taken away from their parents. Instead, it's more like the 2014 uptick of unaccompanied children that the Obama administration dubbed a crisis at the border. In the last month, the number of minors under the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, has nearly doubled, to just over 7,000.
Immigration advocates, especially those who work with unaccompanied minors, vastly prefer that these kids be housed in facilities that are structured more like group homes, with about 20 minors per location. These locations are also inside communities, unlike massive, remote influx facilities like Carrizo. From there, the Office of Refugee Resettlement locates family members in the country or finds other sponsors to take these kids in while their immigration proceedings work their way through the system.
That in itself is a whole thing. Placing a kid with a sponsor "involves receiving an application from and interviewing the potential sponsor, engaging in a set of records checks (criminal records, sexual offender, child abuse/neglect), and in limited circumstances, doing home visits, all in order to make a determination of the safety and appropriateness of the potential sponsor," Mark Greenberg, director of the Human Services Initiative at the Migration Policy Institute, told me. When done right to avoid missing any red flags or otherwise making mistakes, "this process takes weeks and sometimes months," said Greenberg, who was the acting assistant secretary for children and families at HHS during the 2014 crisis.
Even that's not ideal. It's worth noting that, comparatively speaking, the wait time for placement is an eternity compared to the work the foster care system does at the state and local levels. Depending on the locale, kids can quickly be put into kinship placements in around a week in many cases — sometimes 48 hours when a minor has to be removed from a home because of a credible allegation of child abuse.
But these aren't normal times, and like so many other things, Covid-19 has made an already challenging situation more difficult. HHS slashed the number of beds in its facilities to better allow for social distancing. And there was no corresponding increase in smaller-scale housing ahead of this rapid increase in minors in federal custody. Lisa Koop, a lawyer with the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, told me on Tuesday that beds that had recently been empty at facilities there are now filling up with kids.
Despite a colorful trailer welcoming the newcomers and the promise of a well-run facility, it's still a fenced-in camp in the middle of nowhere, which generally doesn't scream "nurturing home."
So the administration opted to reopen Carrizo, a former camp for oil field workers. The last opened and first closed of the Trump administration's overflow facilities for minors, it lacks many of the issues at other centers. It's run by a nonprofit that focuses on providing emergency services rather than by a for-profit prison company, like many adult detention centers. It wasn't one of the HHS sites where incidents of sexual abuse against unaccompanied minors were alleged. But let's not pretend that it's a great situation for the teens there now or those who are likely to join them — despite a colorful trailer welcoming the newcomers and the promise of a well-run facility, it's still a fenced-in camp in the middle of nowhere, which generally doesn't scream "nurturing home."
The backlog in the system and the number of kids newly taken in give me concern for how long they can expect to stay at the facility before they are placed. The goal is that minors are at Carrizo for 30 days before they leave for more permanent homes, an HHS spokesperson told The Post — but if that goes the way the rest of Biden's immigration policy plans have so far, I wouldn't be entirely surprised if it's much longer.
Biden's promised moratorium on deportations in the first 100 days of his term was basically dead on arrival. After a federal court in Texas put a hold on enforcing the plan, Immigration and Customs Enforcement scheduled and carried out deportations for hundreds of immigrants. And while the Department of Homeland Security put out new guidance to ICE, narrowing the criteria for who can be arrested and detained, that, you may notice, is not at all the same thing as deporting zero people.
Things on the Mexican side of the border are also confused and harrowing as Biden tries to unravel the Trump administration's orders. The pandemic emergency declaration that Trump issued is still in place, allowing border crossers to be expelled quickly. Asylum applications are being taken again, but priority is being given to those who've been waiting the longest. And while congressional Democrats have introduced legislation to overhaul the immigration system, it'll be months at least before that moves forward. I get that governing is hard. I get that picking up the pieces after a disaster like the last guy is a nightmare. But it makes sense that the White House's slow start is making some folks concerned.
It's not wrong to say the Biden administration was dealt a bad hand. It's also fair to say that kids at the border are real and that they need shelter and safety as they're reunited with families inside the U.S., even if it requires opening this facility. But I agree with Koop, the immigration lawyer in Chicago: It is concerning that the administration pivoted so quickly to reopen Carrizo, which she called a "failure of creativity" on its part.
Nobody wants to see these kids languishing at Customs and Border Patrol facilities, she told me. "But once you open this place, once you staff it up, it becomes awfully comfortable to keep it open."