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President Joe Biden vowed to take a softer approach to illegal immigration but now faces accusations that many of the record numbers of migrant children in federal custody face neglect and abuse.
As a candidate, Biden promised not to rely on the harsh border policies, such as separating families so that parents could be prosecuted for illegal entry, to which former President Donald Trump had resorted.
But Biden policies have indirectly led to family separations. In February, Biden decided not to send children south of the border immediately, similar to Trump's pandemic protocols. Thousands of more children began traveling to the border, forcing the government to hold them in custody. Unprepared for the surge, the federal government turned to private-sector contractors for help.
Now, more than 18,500 minors who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border alone are now waiting in federal custody to be released to adults within the United States as of early this week. Of that number, 15,282 were in the care of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement as of Monday. The previous record of 14,000 was set in 2019 during the Trump administration. The rest were held by the Border Patrol, which had 1,770 children under the age of 18 detained at its holding facilities as of Monday. That number peaked at more than 5,000 earlier this spring before the administration began moving children from Border Patrol stations to HHS shelters more quickly.
In other words, the Biden administration is holding more migrant children separated from their parents than did the Trump administration, which at one point intentionally separated migrant families.
And while the Biden administration has had success in moving migrant children quickly out of the Border Patrol facilities that have been described as "cages" and into HHS facilities, it now faces criticism from left-leaning immigrant advocates who allege that one of the unlicensed child detention centers contracted by HHS is holding children in conditions that are worse than any seen under Trump.
At the facility, the Pecos emergency intake site in West Texas, children have been held up to three months in "cage-like rooms," have become sick from undercooked food in some cases, and rarely see the light of day, according to the immigrant advocacy group RAICES. Family Endeavors, a small nonprofit organization with no experience caring for immigrant children, runs the site.
“Based upon my direct observations and experience working since 2005 as an attorney who primarily represents immigrants detained in Texas, I find the conditions at Pecos among the harshest and most restrictive of any ORR or ICE facility that I have visited in my career," Jonathan Ryan, president and CEO at the Texas-based RAICES, said in a statement last week.
Pecos is not state-licensed, which means it is not being inspected by state officials to verify it is caring for the children in its custody. For example, some children have been held three months, which violates the Flores settlement agreement, a court ruling that outlines the care underage minors must receive. One of the key terms of the ruling is that minors are not to be held for more than 20 days.
“If these kids are here to join family members, where are the family members? Why is it taking 90 days, and they're still in the system?” said Lora Ries, a senior research fellow for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Democratic lawmakers, who were infuriated by the Trump 'zero tolerance' policy that led to families being separated at the border in 2018, are silent now even as the same conditions are being exposed and the same Border Patrol leaders from then oversee the Pecos facility.
The two top Border Patrol officials who enforced Trump's child separation mandates were hired by Family Endeavors this spring to help oversee the Pecos facility, the Washington Examiner has learned.
Former Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost and her former deputy chief, Scott Luck, advise Family Endeavors on how to detain children specifically at Pecos, according to three people with first-hand knowledge of Family Endeavors's operations.
RAICES sounded the alarm in early August, alleging misconduct at the facility as Family Endeavors looks to expand significantly the number of children it is charged with detaining.
Some 1,500 children and teenagers are being held at Pecos, and Family Endeavors plans to make space for 13,500 total children and teenagers as the number of children coming over the border has spiked in recent weeks. Other significant complaints have been made against Fort Bliss, another HHS site where 2,000 children are being held at present. HHS has not shared where the remaining thousands in its care are being detained.
Allegations of misconduct and abuse of migrant children are no different than those Trump faced during his administration, particularly in El Paso, Texas, and McAllen, Texas. At the time, Biden criticized Trump, but he has not acted for months as complaints of how migrants are treated in U.S. custody continue to mount.
“A policy that separates young children from their parents isn’t a ‘deterrent.’ It’s unconscionable,” Biden said in a statement released in June 2018. “A policy that traumatizes children isn’t a bargaining chip. It’s abhorrent. And a president and an administration that continues this policy isn’t protecting our border and our people. It threatens to make us a pariah in the world.”
“You had so many Democrats, whether it was AOC, or then-Sen. Kamala Harris and others down at the border, and 2018, 2019, decrying kids in cages, quote, unquote. And they're nowhere to be found now,” said Ries. “‘Hypocrisy’ gets so overused, but that's obviously what's going on.”
Ries said that Biden and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas are "absolutely responsible and on the hook" for "enticing" so many children to come to the U.S. and then placing them in an "extremely inhumane" situation in federal custody. Mayorkas's statements that children who show up alone will not be turned away has specifically incentivized families to send children to the U.S., she said.
Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director for immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, said she does not think Biden is responsible for creating this situation because he was handed a weakened child detention program when he took office — the result of Trump's putting children in hotels and deporting them. As a result, Biden officials did not have many options for housing when child arrivals began rising in March. Family Endeavors may have seemed like a good choice because it had experience in disaster relief.
Yet, Brown faulted the Biden administration for allowing the temporary situation to persist.
"In this case, I think, it sounded good on paper. Like, 'OK, we're employing an organization that has disaster relief experience,'" said Brown. "But what we're missing is sort of the long-term child care piece of it. And then the case management piece."
At the start of the year, authorities encountered approximately 5,800 single children. As a result of the White House decision not to turn children away, more children began to arrive, likely because the families sending them knew they would be resettled into the U.S. Preliminary numbers from July indicate authorities encountered roughly 19,000 children, three times the January rate. The government needed to set up emergency facilities quickly to hold the high volume of children coming across the border.
“The Biden administration’s sort of No. 1 goal from the beginning was get kids out of [Customs and Border Protection]. Get them to HHS," said Brown.
HHS opened a dozen temporary facilities nationwide where contracted organizations would detain children because it only had 8,000 permanent beds available and needed thousands more.
In April, HHS awarded a $530 million no-bid contract to Family Endeavors, an organization with no experience taking care of immigrant children. Previously, it had only facilitated contracts for less than $2 million each. The Family Endeavors executive who brokered the deal, Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, worked on Biden's transition team selecting who would be appointed to top jobs at HHS. Months later, HHS turned around and awarded Family Endeavors, which he had advised while on the transition team, the $530 million contract.
“The overarching lesson is that if the government is going to take responsibility for children, it needs to invest in the ability to do so, well," Brown added. "It needs to have plans in place, so it knows exactly how to do this because this is not going away. This has now been going on since 2014. Let's stop treating this as a temporary phenomenon."
Family Endeavors did not respond to a request for comment.
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Original Author: Anna Giaritelli