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Children crossing the border deserve fair treatment

It’s essential that the 66-acre Carrizo Springs facility — and any similar facility — be fully transparent in its operations, open to monitoring by independent watchdog groups, lawyers and the media in a way that facilities for children during the Trump administration often were not.

In this 2019 photo, migrant teens line up for a class at a “tender-age” facility for babies, children and teens in the Rio Grande Valley in San Benito, Texas. With its long-term facilities for immigrant children nearly full, the Biden administration is working to expedite the release of children to their relatives in the U.S.
AP file photo

The Biden administration’s first big controversial move on the immigration front — a decision to open a large temporary holding facility for children who cross the border without their parents — appears to be motivated by commendable intentions.

President Joe Biden, as part of an effort to reverse his predecessor’s most inhumane immigration policies, has called a halt to border agents turning back unaccompanied minors. The result of this, though, has been a challenging unintended consequence; the number of children crossing the border without parents has been shooting up, including 2,000 minors last week alone.

Unable to immediately find suitable placements for all these minors — with relatives or other government-approved sponsors — the Biden administration has reopened a Trump-era emergency facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, for up to 700 children ages 13 to 17. It is a kind of massive camp, full of trailers, many miles from any big city or easy scrutiny.

Civil libertarians, child advocates and both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are decrying Biden’s decision to open the facility, and we share their misgivings. It is essential that children be held there as briefly as possible — weeks, not months — which will require a massive ramping up of federal efforts to find appropriate placements.

That’s a tall order during the COVID-19 pandemic. Largely because of the need for social distancing, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for unaccompanied minors, has been unable to use even all of the 13,200 beds it already has. But it must be done. Once our nation accepts responsibility for these children, as it should, it has to live up to that responsibility.

It’s essential that the 66-acre Carrizo Springs facility — and any similar facility — be fully transparent in its operations, open to monitoring by independent watchdog groups, lawyers and the media in a way that facilities for children during the Trump administration often were not.

Facilities such as that at Carrizo Springs should be run by nonprofits and closed as quickly as the realities of the pandemic allow.

Not a repeat of Trump

A fundamental difference between then and now — between the Trump approach and the Biden approach to handling immigrant children — is that Trump viewed it as largely a law enforcement job while Biden appears to view it, more humanely, as a child welfare challenge.

So many of the children in Trump’s facilities were, in fact, separated from their parents by Trump’s own border agents; splitting up families was seen as a cruelly effective way of discouraging other families from attempting to cross the border illegally.

Biden, in contrast, faces the problem of tens of thousands of migrant children who are being taken into government custody without an accompanying parent or legal guardian.

Trump’s facilities were run by the U.S. Border Patrol — think cops. Biden’s facility is being run by the Office of Refugee Settlement — think social workers.

Trailers and classrooms

As described by the Washington Post, the Carrizo Springs facility includes groups of beige trailers surrounding a white dining tent, a soccer field and a basketball court. There is a legal services trailer with a welcoming sign in Spanish — “Bienvenidos” — as well as trailers for classrooms, a barber shop and a hair salon. The facility has its own water supply.

There is little to suggest, that is to say, the “cages” of fencing in the hot Texas sun that so appalled visitors to Trump-era detention facilities for immigrant children.

Yet they are still “facilities.” They are still “camps.” They are not homes. They are not where children should be.

As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet last week: “This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration or party.”

On Friday, Biden tried to assure critics that the Carrizo Springs facility is will be opened and closed quickly.

“Our hope and expectation,” he said, “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.”

We should all hold him to that.

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