The ongoing crisis at the southern border of the United States is intensifying, as CNN reports more than 4,000 migrant children are being held in Border Patrol Custody. This highlights a continued influx of children housed in border facilities — on March 10, more than 3,700 unaccompanied migrant children were being detained by Border Patrol. The increase has put an already strained system in disarray as officials work to find safe housing accommodations in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many children in what CNN describes as “jail-like facilities” for extended periods of time.
But what is perhaps more jarring is the decision to continue to detain migrant children in the first place. Although President Joe Biden ran on the promise that he would undo many of the previous administration’s inhumane immigration policies, he has come under some scrutiny for his handling of the U.S. border.
Since taking office, Biden has restored the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created a task force to reunite the migrant families forcibly separated as a result of President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, and ordered a review of asylum processing at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, Biden’s immigration-related executive orders did not include a repeal of Title 42, which allowed authorities to “expel almost all people caught crossing the border illegally” under the guise of slowing the spread of COVID-19. Currently, authorities are still expelling all children who arrive with their parents at the border under these pandemic-related restrictions.
And less than three months into the Biden-Harris administration, a facility for migrant children reopened in Carrizo Springs, TX — a center known as the “Cadillac of migrant children centers” that first opened under the Trump administration. The Biden administration also plans to reopen a for-profit detention center in Homestead, FL, according to a report from The Miami Herald. In 2019, the same center came under fire after reports of sexual abuse, overcrowding, and failing to properly vet staff for prior child abuse records surfaced.
The Biden administration has continuously argued that they have no choice but to reopen these facilities due to the influx of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the border. “What we are doing is working as quickly as possible to process these kids into these HHS facilities,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a Feb. 24 press briefing. "This is a difficult situation. It’s a difficult choice.” During an interview with Univision, President Biden said: “Our hope and expectation is that won’t stay open very long, that we will be able to provide for every kid that comes across the border to safely be housed in a facility that is licensed,” referring to the Carrizo Springs facility.
Still, advocates — and some representatives within the Democratic party — argue that the issue isn't the size of the cage, but the fact that children are being put in cages at all. “This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration or party,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Feb. 23. “Our immigration system is built on a carceral framework. It’s no accident that challenging how we approach both of these issues are considered ‘controversial’ stances. They require reimagining our relationship to each other and challenging common assumptions we take for granted.”
Studies have long shown the mental health ramifications of housing migrant children in these detention facilities. Twenty-six studies found that adults and children alike experienced “high levels of mental health problems” as a result of detention, and that “anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder were most commonly reported both during and following detention,” according to a 2009 review published in BMC Psychiatry. The same review found that the longer children, adolescents, and adults spend in a detention center, the more likely it is that they will experience severe mental health effects.
“To create a just and dignified immigration system, we have to abandon cruelty as a deterrent or we’re not going to get very far,” Jacinta Gonzalez of Mijente, an advocacy organization, told Newsweek back in February. “We need a commitment from this administration that they’re moving away from the rhetoric and policies that are so harmful.”