Racing To Flawed Border Solutions

Terry H. Schwadron,

April 6, 2021

In the couple of weeks since Joe Biden gave the immigration surge portfolio to Vice President Kamala Harris to coordinate, there’s been a lot of scramble, but little visible change in the trends.

We’re reaping the results not only of cyclical immigration build-ups and the retreat from inhumane policies inherited from The Former Guy, but of having started to make changes without first thinking through what to do with the rising numbers of young, unaccompanied migrants who are flooding the border police facilities.

As has always been the case, the real and perceived political problems from overcrowding in Customs and Border police jails is as difficult to fix quickly as getting to the root of the problems in Central America. So, the border is already emerging as the soft political underbelly of the Biden administration for Republicans bent on finding fault with partisan flair, like posing in river gunboats with machine guns to protect us from children being dropped over the fencing.

— Federal agencies are reported to be scrambling to get thousands of kids out of Border Patrol jails. But ProPublica is reporting that the rush to create new emergency facilities also has officials skirting safety standards. Some facilities accused of abuse are still getting grants, says ProPublica.

— Harris herself “has plunged into a crash course on what motivates them to come illegally,” with a ton of briefings, homework and examination of alternatives in Central American policy, reportedly including what constitutes local “corruption”– but “not the more politically sensitive question of what to do with people once they arrive.” But she’s working invisibly in the Situation Room, not going to the border itself, though the administration finally let reporters and photographers into border facilities.

— Meanwhile, the numbers continue to grow, swollen by rebuffed migrants waiting just over the border, new immigrants arriving from Central America fleeing hunger, violence and joblessness from natural and man-made causes — as well as Biden’s promise to revisit and overturn the worst of Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

And, thus, inevitably, the politics of the border remains at high volume, led by Republican senators like Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and others who seek to portray Biden and Biden as soft, incompetent, and responsible for creating the surge itself and sinking the country. Nothing self-serving there, of course.

The Surge

Just as a reminder, what Biden has done is to propose a new comprehensive look at immigration, legal and illegal, to fully legalize the Dreamers brought here as infants, provide an eventual path to naturalization for 11 million undocumented, tax-paying residents and to restore asylum and other previously legal processes and addressing the reasons for Central America flight. He agreed to accept unaccompanied minors to unite with families, while continuing to rebuff adults. His goal: A new, relatively permanent solution to illegal immigration.

More than 171,000 migrants were taken into custody along the southern border in March, the highest monthly total since 2006, according to The Washington Post, with 90% turned back at the otherwise closed border. The number of minors has grown to 18,000, who are supposed to be held only three days by police in facilities meant for adults, but there are too many to move quickly into Health and Human Services facilities as they can be set up either as free-standing facilities in tent cities and convention centers, on military bases or with contractors.

ProPublica looked at what’s being done to accelerate the moves out of Border Patrol facilities; as of March 30, 5,000 children were in Border Patrol custody, with 600 in each of two units in Donna, Texas, that under coronavirus, were supposed to hold no more than 32. Half were beyond the three-day limit. The Border Patrol says it lack space, supplies and training to deal with children, and that its primary job, of course, is patrolling, not running holding tanks.

What ProPublica found was that in the hurry-up work to create 15,000 additional beds, HHS is cutting corners. And even its permanent shelter network includes some facilities whose grants were renewed this year despite a record of complaints about abuse of children.

Among the new sites was one in Midland, Texas, that was briefly closed after the state warned that its water wasn’t drinkable, sites with volunteers who have not yet cleared background checks or speak no Spanish, and a designated site in California abandoned upon confirmation that it was by a known, toxic Superfund dump. HHS is opening new “emergency intake sites” in a matter of days, including two in convention centers in Dallas and San Diego.

HHS also has not decided on just what standards for care are in place. In January, the department renewed three-year grants to state-licensed providers in Texas, Pennsylvania and New York that previously faced complaints of physical or sexual abuse of children. The facilities have defended their care without denying the allegations. State-licensed shelters are support to self-report violations found by state inspectors to the federal government. But a 2020 Government Accountability Office report noted that one grantee, which was cited by state auditors 70 times in two years for violations at three facilities, mentioned none of those violations in its reports to HHS.

Chasing the Root Cause

The practice for HHS is to keep shelters while looking and vetting family members in the United States. Republicans are noting that these minors — and any number of families — are being released into the U.S. without return court dates for consideration of their individual cases. That’s why Cruz and friends complain that Democrats have opened the borders.

So, that means that Kamala Harris is neck deep in trying to change direction on a moving train in the midst of a pandemic while under attack from progressives who think change is too slow, conservatives resistant to anything but a Wall to block migration and those Central American leaders who clearly are hoping to get American money either for their countries or their own corrupt use.

White House officials say that Harris is focused on addressing the root causes in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America. It is hard to see progress on that question, of course, since it’s been going on for decades. Team Trump stopped aid, and won agreements only for better immigration enforcement rather than for job creation in Guatemala and Honduras. Spending time on the long-term seems the right answer, of course, but politically perilous for an administration under daily attack over border conditions.

Despite protestations, the Trump White House insisted the only answer (other than for temporary workers needed at Mar-a-Lago and Trump properties) was a Wall and punitive enforcement, which appealed as a “populist” anti-immigrant policy among his supporters. The HHS shelter population was growing last fall, even before a federal judge ruled in November that the Trump administration had to take unaccompanied migrant children in, rather than expelling most of them from the U.S. immediately. But they did nothing until January, days before Biden took office.

Even now, with the CDC waiving coronavirus capacity caps for these migrant child shelters, there are issues finding staff because new variants are spreading. Even with a few hundred beds added each week, the numbers at the border are outpacing the additions.

It feels messy because it is. But it is more messy than it needs to be.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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