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This is the Same Old Bad Immigration System

Child detention is immoral, hope this helps.

Photo: David Geitgey Sierralupe

On Monday, the Washington Post reported that the federal government’s first “migrant facility for children” under President Joe Biden had opened in South Texas. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is.

The facility first opened up in 2019 during the Trump administration, but it closed after just one month, the Post reported. Now, it’s being repurposed due to the pandemic to hold up to 700 kids. San Antonio-based activist Rosey Abuabara told the Post that it was the “considered the Cadillac of centers [for migrant children], but I don’t have any hope Biden is going to make it better.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki denied that the facility is an example of kids being kept in cages. “This is a facility that was opened that’s going to follow the same standards as other HHS facilities,” she said. “It is not a replication.  Certainly not.  That is never our intention of replicating the immigration policies of the past administration.”


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“We are in a circumstance where we are not going to expel unaccompanied minors at the border,” Psaki said. “We need to find places that are safe, under COVID protocols, for kids to be, where they can have access to education, health and mental services, consistent with their best interests.”

Despite the attempts to make this sound like a boarding school for migrant kids, it’s a detention facility, albeit with a basketball court and flowers and butterflies on the walls. There might not be the literal chain-linked fences of the Obama and Trump years, and yes, kids are not being forcibly separated from their parents. But child detention is morally inexcusable in any case, not just the ones that look the worst.

Psaki’s argument echoes that of former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, the guy who actually built the cages, that the only alternatives to child detention are “inhumane,” and that it’s either forced separation or complete abandonment.

“You can’t just dump 7-year-old kids on the streets of McAllen or El Paso,” Johnson said during an interview at The Aspen Institute (of course) in 2019. “They put those chain-link partitions up so you could segregate young women from young men, kids from adults, until they were either released or transferred to HHS. Was it ideal? Of course not.”

There are alternatives, such as foster care and independent living (as recommended by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees). Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also suggested some more fixes on Tuesday night.

But the fundamental issue is that the entire system is hopelessly broken and no one really wants to fix it.

The White House and congressional Democrats have a bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people in eight years. But on a call with reporters last week, Biden administration officials repeatedly brushed off questions about how the bill was actually going to get through Congress and signed into law, saying it was too early to speculate about getting the bill through the reconciliation process (which doesn’t need sixty votes) and that they were “focused on getting the bill introduced.”

If it doesn’t go through reconciliation, it needs 60 votes to pass. That is unless Senate Democrats end the filibuster, which they won’t, and Biden doesn’t want them to do it anyway. So the end result of this is that an archaic Senate instrument is kept in place, and 7,000 kids remain a “symptom of a broken immigration system,” as one HHS official told the Washington Post. The problems are more than just detention. Right now access to legal counsel for migrant kids isn’t just not guaranteed, it’s incredibly rare; more than two-thirds of kids facing deportation proceedings beginning in 2019 weren’t represented by an attorney, according to Syracuse University.

And if you have high hopes about Biden wielding executive power in lieu of congressional action, try to just forget about that right now. Last week, DHS released a memo which walked back Biden’s previous moratorium on deportations and effectively reinstated ICE’s discretion to deport migrants, as Law & Crime reported last week.

“The interim enforcement priorities detailed today import the injustices of the criminal legal system and will lead to continued disproportionate deportations of Black and Brown immigrants,” ACLU senior advocacy and policy counsel Naureen Shah said in a statement last week responding to the memo. “The priorities presume that all recent border crossers are threats, in total contravention of President Biden’s commitment to ensuring that people seeking asylum are treated with dignity.”

Maybe the question isn’t, “How can you reform a system like this?” Even if you could, does anyone with an iota of power even want to?