President Joe Biden’s administration has defended its approach after images emerged of immigrant children in US custody at the country’s Mexico border sleeping on mats under foil blankets and separated in groups by plastic partitions.
The administration has steadfastly refused to call the detention of more than 15,000 children in US custody, or the conditions they are living under, a crisis.
Officials barred not-for-profit lawyers who conduct oversight from entering a Border Patrol tent where thousands of children and teenagers are detained and federal agencies have refused or ignored dozens of requests from the media for access to detention sites. Such access was granted several times by the administration of former president Donald Trump, whose restrictive immigration approach Mr Biden vowed to reverse.
The new president faces growing criticism for the apparent secrecy at the border, including from fellow Democrats.
Mr Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said “the administration has a commitment to transparency to make sure that the news media gets the chance to report on every aspect of what is happening at the border”.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki added that the White House is working with homeland security officials and the Health and Human Services Department to “finalise details” and that she hoped to have an update in the “coming days”.
Axios first published a series of photos on Monday taken inside the largest Border Patrol detention centre, a sprawling tent facility in the South Texas city of Donna. The photos were released by representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat from the border city of Laredo.
US Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, released its own set of photos and videos on Tuesday from the facilities in Donna and El Paso, Texas.
The photos from Donna show some of the same detention areas as in the images released by Mr Cuellar. The agency says it is “working to balance the need for public transparency and accountability” while still refusing access to most outside visitors.
Mr Cuellar said he released the photos in part because the administration has refused media access to the Donna tent. He said he also wanted to draw attention to the extreme challenges that border agents face in watching so many children, sometimes for a week or longer despite the Border Patrol’s three-day limit on detaining minors.
“We ought to take care of those kids like they’re our own kids,” Mr Cuellar said.
Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defence and Educational Fund, said the US should allow media access to border facilities while respecting the privacy of immigrants detained inside. He noted the risk of sharing without permission images of children who have already faced trauma.
Mr Saenz said: “We ought to be aware of these conditions. People have to see them so that they can assess the inhumanity and hopefully embark on more humane policies.”
The White House has prided itself on its methodical rollout of policy during its first 50-plus days but West Wing aides privately acknowledge they were caught off guard by the surge of migrants at the border and the resulting media furore.
Republicans have latched on to the border situation, reviving the issue that was key to propelling Mr Trump to the top of the Republican field in 2016.
In 2018, the Trump administration detained hundreds of children in many of the same facilities being used now after separating them from their parents. The following year, hundreds of families and children detained at one West Texas border station went days without adequate food, water or soap.
Mr Biden has kept in place a Trump-era public health order and expelled thousands of immigrant adults and families, but he declined to expel immigrant children without a parent after a federal appeals court in January cleared the way for him to do so. He also moved to speed up the reunification of hundreds of separated immigrant families.
Mr Cuellar said: “What Trump did was horrible. These pictures show you that even under our best intentions, and the Biden administration has the best intentions, it’s still very difficult.”
Mr Cuellar said the White House needs to work more with Mexico and Central America to prevent people from leaving their home countries. The White House said key officials would go this week to Mexico and Guatemala.
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