Opinion by Greg Sargent
When the administration reopened a warehouse-like facility for migrant children in Texas this week, it caused a huge controversy on all sides. It inspired claims, mostly from the right, that President Biden is reverting to former president Donald Trump’s policies, proving Trump right all along.
But those claims are wrong. As such, this controversy reveals something else as well: the shadow war that former Trump adviser Stephen Miller is running against the new administration.
And Miller is running a propaganda war to manufacture the impression that Biden’s agenda is already a catastrophe. The Post reports that Miller is encouraging GOP lawmakers to step up attacks along these lines.
Central to this will be the public battle over migrant children. When the new Texas facility opened, conservatives (Miller included) scoffed that Biden is being forced to resume Trump policies, because efforts to reverse them have collided with reality, vindicating Trump.
All this is nonsense. On migrant children, Biden has not restarted Trump’s policies. What Biden is doing has nothing in common with “kids in cages.” And none of this proves Trump was right in any way. Here’s a quick corrective.
Why did Biden reopen a migrant facility in Texas?
It’s important to note that the Texas facility is run not by Border Patrol, but by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Federal laws and legal settlements require Border Patrol to take in children and hold them for no more than 72 hours, then transfer them to ORR, which then tries to place them with relatives or guardians.
Thus, the reopening of the Texas facility does not constitute holding children at the border. It constitutes using a warehouse-like facility to deal with overflow at ORR, the waystation before kids hopefully get moved to a better life.
This isn’t “kids in cages” redux. That scandal arose when Trump separated families to hold parents (rather than releasing them), creating a new class of unaccompanied children that didn’t exist before.
In this case, the overflow at ORR is being caused in part by the rise in migrant children arriving at the border alone, not after being separated from parents.
Why are more children migrating?
There is a rise in young migrants arriving at the border, and the Trumpists cite this, too, as vindication. It isn’t.
The Trumpists claim this is due to Biden signaling changes to Trump policies — which is supposedly proving a draw to migrants who now think they can get in — again proving Trump right.
Some of the increase is due to Biden allowing migrants to have due process, but after being trapped in Mexico due to Trump’s policies. That’s a good thing, since those victims of Trump’s policies … deserve due process and humane treatment.
Trumpists will claim this supposed Biden permissiveness is drawing more migrants relative to last year to make the trek. But Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense, told me it’s far more complex than this.
Migration was suppressed last year during the pandemic, and arrivals are now rising due to many factors in Central America, Young said.
“There continues to be a tremendous amount of violence, corruption and deprivation,” Young told me. “Children leave because they’re forced out of their home countries.”
Young added that children are often targeted by gangs trying to force them to join under threat, so “families will very often send children” to try to connect with relatives or friends in the United States, “literally to save their lives.”
Thus, much of the spike is caused by “push” factors, just as previous spikes were. Biden is trying to address those factors with new policies sending aid to the region.
Trumpists simply scoff at these push factors as irrelevant, and instead use cruelty and deterrence to keep migrants away. The fundamental difference here is whether or not to allow in more migrants who actually have legitimate grounds to apply for asylum. We should allow more in. It’s better policy, and it’s more humane.
Can’t we just release children when they arrive?
This is the rub of the issue, and it’s almost never discussed: For now, there is no alternative to holding migrant children, because releasing them would put them in more danger. The question then becomes how to do this.
We want ORR to take in the migrant children very soon after their arrival, because ORR is run by the Department of Health and Human Services rather than an enforcement agency.
“We can’t just release them,” Young told me, because they’re “incredibly vulnerable” in a “strange country.” Instead, Young said, “you have to provide them with appropriate care.”
Indeed, Young noted, holding and processing children is necessary for their own long-term good, because it enables us to determine whether they’re eligible for asylum or other protections, and to place them on the correct legal path to get there.
And so, while the Texas facility understandably has terrible connotations, it actually represents an unfortunate but better approach than the alternatives — either leaving them in enforcement detention or releasing them with nowhere to go.
But the Texas facility is still bad, right?
Yes. It is very problematic, but this part of the debate has gotten badly confused. The problem is not the existence of the facility per se: Again, ORR must hold migrant children before placing them, and that’s better than releasing them alone. This is an emergency measure to deal with overflow.
Rather, the real issue is the conditions under which children are held, and for how long. And this points to the way we can genuinely hold the Biden administration accountable.
What’s the real way to hold Biden to account?
In the short term, we need to scrutinize whether the administration makes good on its promise to make the conditions under which ORR holds children, including at such warehouse facilities, genuinely more humane. Also crucial is whether the administration undertakes reforms to speed up the process of moving kids from ORR to guardians.
“We will be watching this closely to ensure that these children receive the services they need and are moved quickly to a place of stability,” Young told me.
Comparing all this to “kids in cages” confuses the debate in a way that obscures what the Biden administration is genuinely trying to accomplish — and thus makes it harder to actually hold the administration accountable on it.