A 2011 investigation by the Applied Research Center exposed how the federal government’s mistreatment of migrant children included separating them from their families, concluding that more than 5,000 children living in foster care had been prevented from reuniting with parents who had been either detained or deported. President Barack Obama called the findings of that investigation a "real problem," and he vowed to examine how detention could be carried out “in the most humane way possible.”
Despite that vow, a new whistleblower letter reported by Vice News this week provides the latest in a long list of examples of how the United States has continued to fail migrant families, particularly migrant children.
Sent to members of Congress from the Government Accountability Project on behalf of whistleblowers who worked at the Fort Bliss emergency intake facility last spring, the letter describes conditions that amount to child abuse. Allegations include children being denied basic needs and being subjected to unsafe conditions, and of “a culture of secrecy lacking any method to address numerous concerns in which bullying, rioting and sexual harassment of children went unaddressed.”
These latest revelations appear to corroborate a July report from NBC News, with audio from Fort Bliss, that included “allegations of sexual misconduct by staff toward minors, acknowledgment that the children were running low on clean clothes and shoes, and a reluctance by officials to make public the scope of the facility's Covid outbreak.”
How much have we learned as a country over these past 11 years and three presidential administrations? Apparently not enough. Despite all the attention given to what former President Donald Trump’s administration did to separate families, the majority of Americans — at least those who support Democrats — have tended not to care as much about family separations and awful conditions before or after Trump.
Migrant children and families have rarely mattered to modern-day American presidents, unless it’s election season.
During a tense presidential debate exchange in 2020, Joe Biden called Trump’s family separation policy “criminal,” but minutes later, admitted to mistakes that were made in carrying out an Obama administration policy that tried to dissuade unaccompanied migrant children from showing up in the United States but led to children being crowded in cages. In admitting to that mistake, Biden said, "It took too long to get it right.”
But have we ever gotten it right?
“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,” fellow MSNBC columnist Hayes Brown wrote in February 2021.
Part of Biden’s promise not materializing falls squarely on Republicans, especially those on the nativist, white supremacist Trump wing. Long gone is the party that only nine years ago was pushing for a bipartisan immigration bill. Now the GOP is all-in, no questions asked, on enforcement, detention, deportation and exploitative political theater — such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s promise this week to bus migrants to Washington, D.C.
Democrats, though, lack backbone or bravery, and this week’s whistleblower letter proves that the mistakes of the past have never been corrected. The current enforcement-heavy immigration machine originated in the mid-1990s under Bill Clinton, the president praised by Democrats in campaign ads for his hardline immigration stances. A 1996 law he signed has essentially dictated immigration enforcement to this day, and as a country we have never looked back. Presidents Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden have just been passing the baton from one to another, especially after the September 11 attacks, which led to the creation of a new agency called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
When it came to migrant children, however, the 1997 Flores settlement was supposed to ensure they were not subjected to the same enforcement treatment as adults. While the most notable violations of this settlement occurred during Trump's term, family detentions and violations of Flores were happening under the Obama administration as well. Those violations might not have been on the same level as what Trump did, but they happened.
That’s why nobody should be surprised about a whistleblower letter during Biden’s administration. According to this week's count by the Department of Health and Human Services, close to 10,000 migrant children are being held. Health and Human Services is agency that created emergency intake centers, such as the one at Fort Bliss.
Meanwhile, according to what Vice News reported, Health and Human Services insists that all is well now.
“We act quickly to address any concerns and have proactively closed sites that didn’t meet our standards,” an agency spokesperson told the outlet in response to the whistleblower letter. “It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities.”
Yet the patterns persist. The United States immigration system has emphasized enforcement and detention for years, ignoring the human faces and the lives behind the numbers. At some point, there needs to be a deeper reckoning of what has failed. It’s not just the way those policies have been carried out; it’s the policies themselves.
CORRECTION (April 12, 2022, 7:52 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the number of migrant children being held by the Department of Health and Human Services. It is 9,974, not “nearly 17,000.”