Doing Better for Children at the Border

Four years ago, this sign promised a different world “next time,” meaning the next election, after Trump. Now the Biden Administration is struggling to keep that promise, and to reverse inhumane policies implemented over four years. The crisis of children at the border shows how difficult it is to turn around those policies. Despite the urgency of the situation, quick sound bites and Sunday morning talk shows turn this crisis into a political blame game. Republicans blame Biden, and so do some progressives. The facts are more complicated. 

Adam Isacson of WOLA and Jacob Soboroff of NBC News give a more cogent analysis in two succinct tweets than all the talking heads on Sunday’s shows:: 

Isacson: “This is horrible. You know what’s more horrible—but harder to photograph? The other option: expelling kids, alone, to their countries, where they may face danger. Sure—hit the Biden admin for failing to anticipate shelter needs. But don’t hit them for deciding not to expel kids.”

 Soboroff: “Still haven’t heard a single Republican shouting “border crisis” propose a solution to alleviate this, what is indeed a humanitarian crisis in Border Patrol facilities. Only that they want to return to Trump policies and send these minors back to the circumstances they fled.”

Trump’s chosen method of dealing with unaccompanied children was to expel them. His administration expelled hundreds of children, like 12-year-old Gustavo:

“After waiting months in Mexico’s violence-plagued Ciudad Juárez for her U.S. court hearing, Elida allowed her 12-year-old son Gustavo to present himself to U.S. border officials, thinking he would be allowed to reunite with his grandfather in South Carolina. Instead, Gustavo, a largely non-verbal boy with physical and learning disabilities, was expelled to Guatemala alone.”

And like 10-year-old Jesus

“María allowed Jesús, her young son, to cross the border alone to turn himself over to U.S. officials, thinking he would be allowed to reunite with family in Texas and seek refuge in the U.S. under long-standing policies for unaccompanied migrant minors. Instead, Jesús was placed on a deportation flight to Honduras within four days of encountering U.S. immigration officials…”

Late last year, a court order stopped the expulsions of children, but only after hundreds of children had been expelled, alone. 

A second court order in January 2021 said that expulsions of children could resume. The Biden administration said no—they will not expel unaccompanied minors. That’s better than Trump, but still not good enough. Thousands of children continue crossing the border to seek safety in the United States. Now they are now crowded into detention centers and shelters. 

That is not supposed to happen. 

The Border Patrol mission is to arrest and detain, not to shelter or deliver services. Border Patrol detention facilities were designed for single, adult males. The Flores rules say that the Border Patrol must promptly transfer minors to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The Border Patrol is prohibited from holding minors for longer than 72 hours. 

As of Sunday, March 21, 823 unaccompanied migrant children have been held in Border Patrol custody for more than 10 days — more than three times as long as allowed under the Flores rules. Because of overcrowding, children sleep on mats that are inches apart, or on the floor. Some report not seeing the sun and not being allowed to bathe for days.

Two months into the Biden administration, the Office of Refugee Resettlement is struggling to find places to shelter children while it locates family members in the United States or other homes they can go to. Unlike Border Patrol jails, ORR facilities are designed to shelter children and families. Unlike the Border Patrol, ORR’s mission is to shelter and protect those in its care. The Office of Refugee Resettlement does not have space or personnel to handle the number of unaccompanied children who have crossed the border in the past few months, and who continue to come. Their facilities are also overcrowded, and they are searching for more facilities and tasking FEMA with helping. 

The Department of Homeland Security is basically an enforcement agency, and the Border Patrol is part of DHS. The Office of Refugee Resettlement is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Republican resistance in the Senate delayed confirmation of Xavier Becerra to head up HHS until March 18. 

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas described the situation in grim and accurate terms:

“The system was gutted, facilities were closed and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers… We have had to rebuild the entire system, including the policies and procedures required to administer the asylum laws that Congress passed long ago.”

That’s an explanation, but not an excuse. The Biden administration needs to muster ever public and private resource available to care for these children—and for the desperate asylum seekers who still have no way to apply, no line to stand in. 

Another tweet from Adam Isacson to bookend this blog post: 

“A child stuck in a Border Patrol station is better than a child expelled alone … Still, those are two awful—and technically illegal—options. The Biden administration needs to accommodate the kids who are coming, using more means than it has so far.”

About Mary Turck

News Day, written by Mary Turck, analyzes, summarizes, links to, and comments on reports from news media around the world, with particular attention to immigration, education, and journalism. Fragments, also written by Mary Turck, has fiction, poetry and some creative non-fiction. Mary Turck edited TC Daily Planet, www.tcdailyplanet.net, from 2007-2014, and edited the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, in its pre-2008 version. She is also a recovering attorney and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.
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