Houston Chronicle Sunday

Crisis now developing at the border also merits Biden’s attention

- ERICA GRIEDER

President Joe Biden was focused on several concurrent crises when he visited Houston on Friday.

The White House planned the visit so the president could survey the damage caused by the recent winter freeze and the resulting breakdown of Texas’ electrical grid. After meeting with federal, state, and local officials at the Harris County Emergency Operations Center, Biden went to the Houston Food Bank, where first lady Jill Biden had helped volunteers pack boxes of canned peaches, and then traveled to NRG Stadium to tour the mass vaccinatio­n site that federal officials opened Wednesday.

But several hundred miles away, in a dusty corner of Dimmit County, another crisis is unfolding, which also merits Biden’s attention. The Biden administra­tion on Monday opened an emergency facility for migrant children in Carrizo Springs — the first such facility to be opened since Biden took office last month, and almost certainly not the last.

The developmen­t caused consternat­ion among Democrats, many of whom were galvanized into action by images of children kept in jail-like conditions at facilities along the southern border during the Trump administra­tion as a result of its infamous family separation­s policy.

“This is not OK, never has been OK, never will be OK — no matter the administra­tion or party,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York City Democrat.

“What the actual f—?” asked Cesar Espinosa of FIEL Houston.

Conservati­ves, too, were confounded by the news that minors were being held en masse again at the Carrizo Springs camp, which briefly housed migrant children in 2019. That wasn’t at all a popular move when former President Donald Trump was behind it.

“We’ve seen some photos, now, of containers,” said Peter Doocy of Fox News at a White House press briefing Wednesday, referring to the shed-like manu

factured buildings at the camp, which originally housed oil field workers. “Is there a better descriptio­n — is it ‘kids in containers’ instead of ‘kids in cages?’ ”

Quite different, explained the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki.

“Let me give a broader descriptio­n of what’s happening here,” she said. “We have a number of unaccompan­ied minors, children, who are coming into the country without their families. What we are not doing — what the last administra­tion did — is separate those kids, rip the arms from their parents at the border. We are not doing that. That is immoral.”

“We only have a couple of choices,” she added, explaining that the Carrizo Springs facility is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, rather than Customs and Border Protection. The aim is to release minors to HHS custody within 72 hours of their apprehensi­on — a standard that was not met, in all cases, during the recent winter weather disaster.

When the issue came up on Air Force One, as Biden made his way to Texas on Friday, Psaki again defended the administra­tion’s decision to open the Carrizo Springs facility.

“I would describe it as a shelter,” said Psaki, according to pool reports.

That might be a bit euphemisti­c. Detention is detention, and it’s never an ideal situation for children. But, according to advocates, camps such as the one at Carrizo Springs may be the least bad available option for minors in such a difficult situation.

“Just in general, detention is not really a good idea under the pandemic, but still, there needs to be a process by which people can safely be routed to a better place,” said Ruby Powers, a Houston-based immigratio­n attorney.

That can’t be rushed, she continued, when you’re dealing with minors, who need to be released to sponsors — in most cases, a relative already in the country. “They need to make sure they’re put in the right hands, not with just anybody; they need to be screened for health, mental and physical issues.”

The overarchin­g issue is that the recent rise in apprehensi­ons of unaccompan­ied minors — a reflection of the hope migrants have for more humane treatment under the new administra­tion — is likely to continue. According to a report this past week on the Axios news site, officials are preparing for up to 13,000 children to arrive in May, as warmer weather makes it safer to travel from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

“The problems that were happening in the Triangle did not go away with COVID, did not go away with Trump,” said Powers. “People are just looking for hope for their children.”

Under Trump, whose presidency was defined by anti-immigrant rhetoric and orders, such hope was hard to come by. Biden, a moderate Democrat who vowed to take a different approach to immigratio­n on the campaign trail, revoked some of his predecesso­r’s more draconian executive orders on the subject on his first day in office, and also called on Congress to pass comprehens­ive immigratio­n reform. And the new administra­tion has ended the “Remain in Mexico” immigratio­n policy that left many asylum seekers living in dirty, dangerous camps along the border; migrants are now allowed to cross and remain in the U.S. pending asylum court hearings.

The opening of the camp at Carrizo Springs this week isn’t a sign of hypocrisy on Biden’s part. Rather, it’s a reminder of the urgency of the situation.

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