From the May-June 2021 issue of News & Letters
by Buddy Bell
The number of people who cross the border without documents is rising and has been for many years. This trend has remained steady through the transition from Trump to President Biden, notwithstanding the self-promotional lies and distortions of professional smugglers and ultraconservative members of the U.S. Congress. One statistic for 2021 actually jumped higher: the number of undocumented minor children crossing the border alone. They are mainly leaving Central American and South American countries decimated by a growing governmental contempt for human rights and democracy, propagated in part by decades of U.S. intervention on behalf of U.S. big business profits.
DESPERATE CHILDREN TRAVELING ALONE
The Biden administration is scrambling to build or recommission enough facilities to house the children until custody can be granted to a family member. There are more than 20,000 children in shelters run by Health and Human Services (HHS), some of which are tent facilities like in Carrizo Springs, Texas, one of the first Trump-era sites to be reopened by Biden.
A couple years ago, tent facilities like Carrizo Springs were denounced by many Democrats as ill-equipped to house children. Now Republican members of Congress are claiming the children were better off “Remain[ing] in Mexico,” conveniently leaving out the levels of violence and harassment which migrants are subjected to while waiting months for an appointment in the border zone. During the supposedly humane Trump era, about a third of asylum seekers missed their appointment dates, sometimes because they were kidnapped by gangs, detained by Mexican police, or in the hospital. Viviana, an asylum seeker from Cuba, had a miscarriage in Matamoros, Mexico: “I told them, ‘Listen, this is what happened to me. This is why I missed my court date,’ and they just said, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do.’”
Democratic Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar is the vice chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He is the House Democrat who has taken the most money from private prison companies GEO group and CoreCivic (previously Corrections Corp. of America) and now likes to criticize the presence of more than 2,000 children waiting for days and weeks in Border Patrol cells, going so far as to send photographs to the media and tour the interview circuit.
Biden had pledged to end for-profit detention, but his Jan. 26 executive order to cancel contracts was limited to the Department of Justice and will not necessarily apply to DHS. While Biden cancelled construction of the border wall, he had no qualms in appropriating money to border wall construction during the 1990s. But now he wants to “direct federal resources to smart [high-tech] border enforcement efforts.” Border security contractors gave more money to Biden’s 2020 campaign than to Trump’s, a 55%-45% split. From 1994 to today, the U.S. government’s annual border security budget grew from $1.5 billion to more than $25 billion.
POLICY HAS INHUMAN EFFECTS
Andrea’s six-year-old son Juan, fled Venezuela with his grandmother because the family was receiving death threats. The pair were detained at the border, then Juan was placed in an exclusive facility for minors. In the face of sluggish staff, Andrea traveled twice from her home in California to Arizona with a group of activists to pressure for Juan’s release. “How can they do this to a child? He’s never been separated from his family… I said, ‘Please, give me my son.’ They wouldn’t do it.” Juan was finally released on April 12 after 10 days.
Neha Desai of the National Center for Youth Law was quoted in the Washington Post saying that “the [HHS/DHS] vetting process is wrongly grounded in the presumption that a child is safer in government custody than with a parent or relative.”
Myriad health risks, including COVID-19, and the risk of sexual and physical abuse are always present in a detention setting. This is especially true when facing a lack of suitable facilities and extreme staff shortages, which is apparent when staff from unrelated agencies NASA and EPA are asked to deploy to the border.
It is incumbent on government agents under the Biden Administration to make a custody decision that has the least risk of harm for each individual child. Members of society must make sure that political and business considerations will not play any role.