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Migrant Justice: Biden is locking up migrant children. Will the world still care with Trump gone?

* thanks to The Guardian and Moustafa Bayoumi for the article *

This week, the Biden administration did the unthinkable. It reopened a Trump-era detention site for migrant children. The detention center, a reconverted camp for oil field workers in Carrizo Springs, Texas, is expected to hold 700 children between the ages of 13 and 17, and dozens of kids have already arrived there. This is an awful development, reminding me of some of the worst abuses of the Trump years. And while we obviously don’t know how this ominous development will play out in the long run, what we do know is this: unaccompanied migrant children deserve compassion, not detention. But rather than seeking out new and better solutions, the Biden administration is instead trying to sell us an image of a kinder, gentler imprisonment.

How else are we to understand the words of Mark Weber, spokesperson for Health and Human Services (HHS), the agency that oversees the welfare of unaccompanied migrant children? Weber told the Washington Post that “the Biden administration is moving away from the ‘law-enforcement focused’ approach of the Trump administration to one in which child welfare is more centric”. That may play well as a soundbite, but how welfare-centric is it to place children in jail in the first place? And if you don’t think it’s a jail, you should know that the “unaccompanied teens sent to the Carrizo Springs shelter will not be allowed to leave the facility”, as reported by the news website

It gets worse. The camp’s operation will be “based on a federal emergency management system”, where “trailers are labeled with names such as Alpha, Charlie and Echo”, names which are commonly used in military detention practices. (Camp Echo, for example, is a notorious site in Guantánamo Bay.) And while staff members will thankfully not be sporting military gear, the government spokesman makes a point to tell us that they will “wear matching black-and-white T-shirts displaying their roles: disaster case manager, incident support, emergency management” and that “the most colorful trailer is at the entryway, where flowers, butterflies and handmade posters still hang on its walls from Carrizo’s first opening in 2019”.

Give me a break. The problem with this sort of language is that it hides the brute reality of detention and covers it up with the rosy rhetoric of summer camp. The Post story describes the center as a 66-acre site where “groups of beige trailers encircle a giant white dining tent, a soccer field and a basketball court. There is a bright blue hospital tent with white bunk beds inside. A legal services trailer has the Spanish word ‘Bienvenidos,’ or welcome, on a banner on its roof. There are trailers for classrooms, a barber shop, a hair salon.” Who, I wonder, is really comforted by a “welcome banner” on a roof, the jailers or the jailed? Think I’m being ungenerous? That the Biden administration is merely trying to articulate to the public how its detention scheme will be more salubrious than Trump’s? Well, if that’s the case, then health concerns, especially during a pandemic, would be paramount. We’ve been told by the government that these children will arrive at Carrizo Springs after a period of quarantine and will all be tested for Covid before entry. Yet, when asked HHS whether everyone entering the facility, and not just these teens, will be tested for the virus, they did not receive a direct answer.

It doesn’t stop there. Despite the language coming from the administration, these children are facing a terrible and possibly illegal situation. In 1997, a class-action lawsuit settlement established standards for the detention and release of unaccompanied minors taken into custody by the authorities. According to the Flores Settlement Agreement, the federal government must transfer these unaccompanied children to a non-secure and licensed facility within days of being in custody. In an emergency, the government can keep the children for up to 20 days while seeking to reunite them with family members or place them with a sponsor. Meanwhile, the Carrizo Springs site is a secure site (the kids can’t leave), is unlicensed by the state of Texas (it’s operated by a government contractor for the Office of Refugee Resettlement), and is expected to hold children for 30 days, as reported by the Washington Post, which is obviously longer than the 20 days dictated by the Flores Agreement. The detention is also very expensive, coming in at a cost of $775 a day per child compared with $290 a day for permanent centers.

All of these extremely disturbing facts surrounding this detention should elicit massive amounts of outrage in all of us, but the Biden administration seeks to deflect the criticism by assuring us their version of childhood detention is thoughtful and humane, even while opening a facility where kids are delivered in unmarked vans to an internment camp that is geographically remote and difficult to access. Does it feel like we’re being sold a bill of goods? It sure does to me. Yes, it’s not as malevolent as the family separation policies of Trump, but if our way of judging political conduct now is whether something is simply “better” or “worse” than Trump was, then we’ve elevated Trump’s actions into our new standard of behavior. And when we do that, we’ve lost any genuine sense of judgement in the first place.

There’s no question that, with rising numbers of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border during Covid, the Biden administration has a difficult road ahead. But expanding a long discredited system that detains children cannot be the answer, no matter how good the government wants to make it sound. 

Every government spins their message. But if we fall unthinkingly for the spin, the fault isn’t with them. It’s with us.