Children At The Border: What's Biden Doing To Address The Crisis?

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Border Patrol agents apprehend a group of migrants near downtown El Paso, Texas following the congressional border delegation visit on March 15. President Joe Biden faced mounting pressure Monday from Republicans over his handling of a surge in migrants -- including thousands of unaccompanied children -- arriving at the US-Mexican border. Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy of California, who leads his party in the House of Representatives, told reporters last week the "crisis at the border is spiraling out of control." (JUSTIN HAMEL/AFP via Getty Images)
Border Patrol agents apprehend a group of migrants near downtown El Paso, Texas following the congressional border delegation visit on March 15. President Joe Biden faced mounting pressure Monday from Republicans over his handling of a surge in migrants -- including thousands of unaccompanied children -- arriving at the US-Mexican border. Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy of California, who leads his party in the House of Representatives, told reporters last week the "crisis at the border is spiraling out of control." (JUSTIN HAMEL/AFP via Getty Images)

There's a surge of migrant children crossing the southern border. When it comes to immigration, a long-term challenge besets a new administration. We discuss what the Biden administration is doing to address the crisis at the border.


Jacob Soboroff, NBC News and MSNBC correspondent. He’s just returned from the U.S.-Mexico border. Author of “Separated." (@jacobsoboroff)

Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. (@BPC_TBrown)

Melissa Adamson, attorney with the National Center for Youth Law. (@AdamsonM16)

Kurt VerBeek, co-founder and president of the Association for a More Just Society, a Christian non-profit in Honduras. Co-author of "Call for Justice." (@kurtverbeek)

Interview Highlights

On the current situation at the border

Jacob Soboroff: "We certainly are faced with a humanitarian crisis, but it is not a national security crisis. And it's one right now, quite frankly, none of us in the American public, nor journalists are able to see with our own eyes. And that is the crisis inside Border Patrol detention facilities along the southwest border, which are overcrowded — unaccompanied migrant children held in situations that no child should be held in. And that's something even the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledges. But again, I have to admit, I have not seen that with my own eyes.

"I did see the Trump administration separation policy in these facilities with my own eyes. But the Biden administration is not allowing access and they should. And I say that as a journalist and a reporter advocating for transparency. But what I also must say is that as a reporter, what I have seen with my own eyes during this administration, is that the border is closed to everyone but unaccompanied children. And so when I hear this messaging from particularly Republicans, that there's some sort of open borders, national security crisis, it's just not based in reality. I was in Tijuana where virtually no one can apply for asylum, whether you're a family member, arriving parents and children together, or you're a single adult male.

"Only because the Biden administration has reversed a Trump administration policy and is now allowing unaccompanied children to enter the country, in the name of humanity, is the reason we're faced with the crisis inside the Border Patrol stations and jails. And that's one of just needing to move those children out of those facilities as quickly as possible to get in the care of child welfare professionals. Nobody else on the large scale is getting into the country at this moment."

I'm seeing reporting here that more than 3,000 of these young people are stuck at border patrol stations for much longer than they're legally allowed to be. And they're waiting for beds in other shelters. And while they're waiting for those beds, they are being held in steel and concrete cells that were built for adults. Is that right?

Jacob Soboroff: “Whether they're cages, or Plexiglas dividers or whatever the case may be. And to be specific, the facility with the cages where I saw children held during separations is closed. It's closed for renovations under a congressional appropriations bill. It doesn't matter. No child should be held. You are correct. No child should be held in those conditions for more than 72 hours. Frankly, they shouldn't be held in those conditions at all. They're in jail-like facilities designed for adults.

"... This isn't a new problem, because we have had decades of deterrence-based immigration policy in this country. Punitive-based, deterrence-based policy meant to scare adults, originally, from coming to this country, and turning them back by the virtue of how harshly we treat them. Over the last decade or so, decade-plus, as more and more families and children have come to this country, they found themselves stuck in this system, which is an inhumane way to treat anyone, especially children.

"And so now, yes, you're absolutely right. Over 3,200, I think, was the last count that we had yesterday at NBC News. Children have been held in these facilities for longer than the legal limit. It's because of a back up in the next phase in the process. Which is Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement being able to create space and care for the children in a way that they should be cared for, under the law, by child welfare professionals, period."

On how the rise in children at the border right now compares with a rise during the Trump administration

Jacob Soboroff: "It's not there yet. It is not as high as the number of crossings at the height of the Trump administration and in 2019. And I think I'm glad that you brought that up. It's critical to underscore this is not a new phenomenon. I wouldn't even call it a problem. It is the migration of people from all over the world who arrive at the southern border, but particularly from countries, three countries in Central America. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, that are faced with significant challenges, including ... violence and persecution. But also poverty, malnutrition, starvation, often brought on by climate change and climate variability.

"Hear Ambassador Roberta Jacobson from the White House talk about the root causes of these problems. The reason that we've seen this before is because the source of this migration is not new, and it is only becoming more acute. And so, you know, you can call it a surge. You can call it whatever you want.

"But right now, the numbers aren't as high as they were during the Trump administration. They very well may go higher. And this is a problem that is going to repeat itself again, and again and again under Democratic and Republican administrations. Until the system itself, wholesale, is looked at and reformed away from a deterrence-based policy, and more towards one that deals with migrants as refugees and not as criminals."

On bottlenecks in the immigration system  

Melissa Adamson: "The majority of children in federal immigration custody, that is in these ORR licensed shelters that are waiting to be released to sponsors. The majority of them have family members here in the United States that they could be released to. And so a big part of the government's legal obligation to these children is to make continuous efforts at trying to identify a sponsor for a child, to reach out to them, to walk them through the application process, to vet that sponsor and then to approve the release of the child to that person.

"And that process is a legal obligation by the government. And that's kind of what is serving as a bottleneck to the system right now, in a certain sense, that this processing takes some time. And we think the Biden administration is making a lot of good moves to try to speed up that processing so that children can still be released, but much faster and in a safe way.

"To your point about sponsors unwillingness to come forward due to fear, a large part of that is, you know, in 2018, the Trump administration implemented a memorandum of understanding between the Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. And what that did was it shared information between those two agencies. And so sponsors knew that if they came forward to take a child out of custody, their information would be shared with homeland security.

"And as a result, we know that at least 170 sponsors that came forward to take care of a child were deported or detained solely because the government had their information. Now, the Biden administration just a couple of days ago rescinded that memorandum. And so they're no longer doing that information-sharing that had a chilling effect on sponsors' willingness to come forward. And that's great. But that's going to take some time for that message to permeate the communities that could potentially take care of these children."

On Kurt VerBeek's work In Honduras

Kurt VerBeek: "We work with families, we work with victims of homicide, their families, but also usually young girls, but some young boys who have been victims of sexual assault. And a chunk of those, a lot of those families, after ... someone in their family has been killed by a gang member, they will initially flee from the neighborhood. But oftentimes there is threats sometimes of gang members' track them down in the new place that they've gone.

"And the family says, you know, the only way to keep my kids safe, the only way for us to continue living, is to get out of the country, to find somewhere safe. The same is true with sexual violence, often again connected with gang violence. The gangs find a young girl. A story not too long ago, with a young girl on her way to school. And the gang members started bothering her and saying that they wanted her to be their girlfriend. And she refused and then was a victim of of rape by several of them. And the family says, you know, we have to leave this house. We can't keep our kids in this situation."

Is that threat of violence so endemic across the whole country that families feel like they can't rely on local or national authorities to keep them safe? 

Kurt VerBeek: "I think that's where the situation is not without hope. So our organization now has been working for 20 years in pockets of the city, working with victims of homicide and their families. And we have been successful. U.S. policy, I think, has also been successful. So, Honduras in 2012 was the most violent country in the world. We had 90 homicides per 100,000. The U.S. is about eight, so over 12 times as high a homicide rate. And the current homicide rate is down to in the low 30s. So almost a third of what it was in 2012.

"And a good chunk of that is due to U.S. aid. Our organization was very involved in a major purge of the police. Almost half of the police in the country were fired, and they trained and hired new cops. And there's still lots of problems. Homicide rate of 38 is too high. There's still corruption in the police, but it's much better than it was. So I think it is not a country without hope. I think the U.S. could, the Biden administration can put lots of pressure and improve things here. But I do also understand why families, when their particular situation, when their kids are threatened, they say, I can't live here anymore."

On why it's so hard to see change in U.S. immigration policy

Theresa Cardinal Brown: "Politics, in this case, is the impediment to good policy. I think what we've seen is that both parties have strong opinions about what should be done on immigration. And they run on those policies. They run on those concepts. And that seems to activate their base. And that they would almost, in some ways, rather blame the other party for not doing something, because that will help them electorally, then actually try to solve the problem and get something done.

"And we're already seeing that with Republicans who are making this an issue for the next congressional elections in less than two years. Biden ran against Trump's policies at the border. Trump ran against Obama's policies at the border. And we probably will continue to see this. What needs to happen is a change in the politics. Where the American people get tired of seeing the same things happen and demand solutions from their representatives, rather than demagoguery."

From The Reading List

NBC News: "Southwest border crossings on pace for highest levels in 20 years, Biden admin says" — "Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday the U.S. is expected to reach the highest number of people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in two decades."

Washington Post: "‘Kids in cages’ is a distraction. The real problem is a lack of migrant housing." — "In recent weeks, the term 'kids in cages' began trending on social media as news broke that the Biden administration was reopening a temporary influx facility for unaccompanied migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Tex."

Univision: "Biden's immigration policy needs anti-corruption focus in Central America" — "Biden needs to follow through on a proposed Central American regional anti-corruption commission. Otherwise, U.S. aid will not stop thousands of desperate people from fleeing countries that give them little hope to survive, much less flourish."

The Guardian: "What is Joe Biden doing to cope with a rise in unaccompanied child migrants?" — "Joe Biden’s promise of a more 'fair, safe and orderly' immigration system is facing an early test as the number of children seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border has increased this year."

New York Times: "Surge in Migrants Defies Easy or Quick Solutions for Biden" — "The Biden administration warned on Tuesday that the United States expected to make more apprehensions along the southwestern border this year than at any time in the past two decades, underscoring the urgency for the White House to develop solutions for the chronic problems with immigration from Central America."

CBS News: "Record number of children being held at the U.S.-Mexico border" — "More than 4,000 unaccompanied migrant children and teens are being detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Biden administration is working to find additional housing for them as detention centers become overcrowded. Many of these minors currently do not have proper access to food, beds, or showers."

This program aired on March 17, 2021.


Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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