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It is amazing, and dispiriting, to see how quickly some politicians start to focus on the treatment of migrant children at the southern border when it helps them politically. The inverse is true for officials who are outraged about conditions under one administration and more defensive of similar conditions under the next.
In both these cases, the emphasis seems to be on political impact rather than the impact on real people’s lives. To us, this cyclical back-and-forth is reflective of a broken national debate about fixing a broken immigration system.
President Joe Biden has promised a more humane approach to immigration than his predecessor Donald Trump. We welcome that, and would welcome a 21st century immigration system that is tailored to the realities of today and not subject to drastically different interpretations from one administration to the next.
Until that system arrives, we also want the Biden administration to show its work to prove that people coming to the U.S. are being treated humanely. So far, the administration is failing to live up to its stated commitment to transparency when it comes to current conditions in border patrol facilities.
Amid a migration surge at the southern border, including many unaccompanied children, the administration has been denying journalists access to U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facilities.
“The humanitarian crisis at our border is heartbreaking. While Trump is responsible for dismantling and destroying the infrastructure in our refugee and asylum systems, we need President Biden to move faster and to provide additional capacity,” Yasmine Taeb, a human rights lawyer and refugee advocate, told The Hill recently. “These border facilities are absolutely no place for children, and it’s troubling that more access is not provided to press and advocates seeking information about the conditions of children in overcrowded facilities.”
This past weekend, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas spoke with Fox News Sunday about the current surge at the southern border, and attempted to defend the administration’s continued refusal to provide media access at these border patrol facilities.
“Number one, let’s not forget that we’re in the midst of a pandemic, and we are focused on our operations, executing our operations in a crowded border patrol facility where hundreds of vulnerable migrant children are located,” Mayorkas told Fox’s Chris Wallace. “And number two, we’re working on providing footage so that the American public can see the border patrol stations. And I would encourage you and other reporters to see the facilities under the control of the Health and Human Services Department, where those children are sheltered, and where they belonged, and where we are moving them as quickly as possible.”
We have not forgotten about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Even with vaccine-driven optimism, we hope others haven’t forgotten either and remain cautious. But this ongoing public health reality simply isn’t a good reason to keep Americans wondering what their tax dollars are supporting at the southern border. As Wallace pointed out, it seems quite possible for the federal government to arrange a pool reporter and camera crew to safely document the current conditions. COVID-19 may be a complication in this case, but it cannot continue to be an excuse.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked Monday about transparency and when reporters will be able to tour these facilities. Her answer was short on details and urgency.
“Well first, we are working to finalize details, and I hope to have an update in the coming days. We are working through with the Department of Health and Human Services and also the Department of Homeland Security to ensure privacy and ensure we’re following COVID protocols,” Psaki said. “We remain committed to transparency, and of course, as I noted last week, we certainly want to make sure the media has access to these sites.”
That commitment to transparency is far from certain and doesn’t feel particularly urgent.
Amid all the political opportunism and defensiveness, the welfare of these children at the border should be the focus. And the Biden administration should show the American people the facilities where these vulnerable children are being held — at all stages of the process, not just the facilities the administration wants to show us.
Some of Mayorkas’ remarks from a March 1 White House briefing stand out weeks later.
“Let me — let me share with you what I — what I communicate to the workforce, and we’ll leave it at that, because it’s in the service of openness and transparency: Don’t shrink from criticism; just work very hard not to deserve it,” he said at the time.
Right now, the Biden administration deserves the criticism it is getting about transparency at the southern border.