The Biden administration is reluctant to refer to the situation on the southwestern border as a “crisis,” preferring to call it a “challenge.” But with nearly 100,000 apprehensions at the border last month alone, that may be a distinction without much difference. Whatever it’s called, this influx of asylum seekers—including a rapidly growing number of unaccompanied, unauthorized minors crossing into the U.S. from Mexico—is a major humanitarian and legal dilemma confronting the new administration, one that previous administrations have also wrestled with.
Over the course of the Trump administration more than 5,000 children were forcibly separated from their parents. And in spite of a court order to reunite all children with their families, on the day that Joe Biden was inaugurated more than 1,000 children remained disconnected from their parents, according to Lee Gerlent of the ACLU, primarily because locating parents who were deported without their kids has been extremely difficult. That is why President Biden has created a task force headed by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to track down these parents, whatever it takes, and reunite broken families. Meantime, more than 4,200 unaccompanied children are now being detained at the border on Biden’s watch, with thousands held beyond the legally imposed limit of 72 hours in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The difference is that where Trump created a nightmare as a way to discourage families from even trying to come to the land of opportunity, Biden is working under similarly difficult circumstances to try and build, in difficult and fast-moving circumstances, a more humane and decent system.
It has been almost three years since I first wrote that former President Trump’s unprecedented policy of forcibly separating immigrant children from their parents at the nation’s southwest border was nothing short of “child abuse by government.”
The trauma that the Trump government imposed on these children—and their parents—was intentional and unspeakable. Besides being literally wrenched from their parents, toddlers and young children, as well as adolescents were kept under deplorable and dangerous conditions. Officials tried to deny that the facilities for housing detained children were “cages.” But what I saw on my trips to the border in 2019 were many kids kept in cold chain-link containers with as many as a dozen children in a single cell. There were mattresses on the floor with aluminum foil heat blankets, no toys or books in sight. Yes, I saw a few compassionate Border Patrol agents holding and comforting toddlers. But, indeed, there’s no denying that these children were being detained in what, for all intents and purposes, were cages.
The rationale for this gratuitous cruelty concocted by former White House immigration adviser Stephen Miller and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was about creating harsh disincentives for families attempting to seek asylum or work in the United States.
Never mind that the vast majority of these families were risking life and limb to gain refuge from extreme human rights abuse and the constant threat of violence in their home countries, particularly ravaged neighborhoods in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Fast-forward to the new Joe Biden and Kamala Harris administration: Again we have extraordinary challenges around managing unauthorized entry to the U.S. of thousands of people seeking work and asylum, but this time the new president is demanding rapid disposition of every case, and humane treatment of every individual seeking entry to the U.S.
A senior physician who has been working with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency and the Border Patrol since early in the Trump administration told me that the difference in guiding principles between 2018 and 2021 is “night and day.”
From a practical perspective, there are several things that the administration can do now to help relieve pressures in the system—and minimize the trauma to children waiting for stability and reconnections to family:
First, strict guidelines for physical spaces and support services for children in custody at the border should be developed and enforced. Never again should any child be detained in facilities that look like cages or jail cells.
Second, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a federal agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), must provide full health and support services for children who are discharged from border detention. Because of COVID-19 concerns, admissions to these facilities have been limited. The government must create additional capacity by standing up new facilities under ORR and, on the other end, accelerate the process for identifying appropriate long-term placements for all children.
Third, the government should issue a national call for experienced mental health and social service professionals to join efforts making sure that unaccompanied children and youth are protected and properly cared for while in federal custody.
Fourth, there is reason to be concerned about the quality standards in non-governmental facilities utilized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as placement sites for unaccompanied minors. To manage this, the federal government must insist that all facilities accepting children in custody receive state certification for safety and ability to provide necessary services.
I suspect that none of these recommendations would be resisted by the new administration. After all, the Biden-Harris team is coming from a very different place than the intentional deployment of outright “cruelty as policy” much favored by Donald Trump. The former president seemed perfectly content to trample the values of humanity and decency that mean so much to most Americans. The current president wants to solve our challenges with wisdom, competence, and the empathy that so many of us still cherish.