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Despite Immigration Pledges, Biden Admin Detains Thousands of Unaccompanied Migrant Children

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The Biden administration is struggling to address the flow of migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents, many fleeing extreme violence, poverty and natural disasters in their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. News reports show more than 3,500 children were detained at the border in just the first nine days of March, with many being held longer than the legal limit of 72 hours. “We can call it a crisis. We can call it a surge,” says Aura Bogado, senior investigative reporter at Reveal. “What we shouldn’t call it is a surprise.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden is struggling to address the overwhelming flow of migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents, many fleeing extreme violence, poverty, natural disasters in their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Documents obtained by several news outlets show more than 3,500 children were detained at the border in just the first nine days of March. On Monday, CBS News reported some 3,000 children are still detained in crowded cells at Border Patrol stations. Many are being held longer than the legal limit of 72 hours as the government waits for beds to become available in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, ORR, and Department of Health and Human Services. The Washington Post reports the shelters received more than 450 new migrant children per day, on average, in the first week of March. Most are between the ages of 13 and 17.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited the, quote, “extraordinary circumstances” Friday, when it said the shelters can to return to pre-pandemic capacity if they implement enhanced coronavirus protections. Biden’s top adviser on U.S.-Mexico border policy, Roberta Jacobson, said Wednesday the administration is trying balance a humane response to the children with the message that they should stop crossing.

ROBERTA JACOBSON: I think all of us, at every stage of this process, are doing everything we can to make sure that children are well cared for and moved into facilities that are appropriate for them. But I want to make a point again that it’s really important that people not make the dangerous journey in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: During Jacobson’s press briefing, she broke into Spanish several times to say “the border is closed” and announced the revival of an Obama-era policy that allows Central American children to apply for admission to the United States from their home country.

This comes as the Biden administration recently reopened a shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas, that was used by the Trump administration, and plans to hold some 700 migrant teenagers there. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki defended the move.

PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: This is not kids being kept in cages. This is — this is kids — this is a facility that was opened that’s going to follow the same standards as other HHS facilities. It is not a replication, certainly not. That is never our intention of replicating the immigration policies of the past administration.

AMY GOODMAN: As the Biden administration looks for more space to house the record influx of migrant children, it may move to house them on military bases, or even a vacant NASA research center in the San Francisco Bay Area.

For more, we go to Aura Bogado, the senior investigative reporter at Reveal who has long covered immigration and the conditions of detained migrant children. Last year, in a series titled “The Disappeared,” she exposed how the U.S. was holding migrant children far longer than previously known.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Aura. It’s great to have you with us. Can you start off by saying — would you call this a surge? Would you call it a crisis? And what needs to be done?

AURA BOGADO: There is an increase of young, mostly Central American, migrants at the southern border. We can use different words. We can call it a crisis. We can call it a surge, which is a term that’s usually more associated with the natural water phenomena. What we shouldn’t call it a surprise. The Biden administration long knew that there would be an increase of children at the southern border and had a long time to prepare. While he’s only been in office less than two months, he had been elected prior to that. And he campaigned on specifically changing policies and practices that happened under the Trump administration. Some of that has indeed happened. But when it comes to the number of children that are in certain facilities, whether they’re cages or shelters, and how long they’re being kept for, we haven’t really seen that much of a change.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Aura, explain what you think needs to happen. What should the Biden administration be doing now so that there aren’t so many children in detention?

AURA BOGADO: Well, as a reporter, I would like for the Biden administration to be transparent, something, again, that I think the Biden administration, when he was a campaign, was both implicit and tacit about in his promises.

I was on a call with several reporters yesterday with the current commissioner of the CBP, Troy Miller, and he would not tell us the number of children that are in these cells at the border. They’re usually called the hieleras. They’re really cold cells. That’s how kids and adults describe them. And he wouldn’t tell us the number. He said that he couldn’t share because it was law enforcement-sensitive. He was pressed on this, and he told us that it was — that many multiple agencies were involved. Again, that doesn’t explain why he couldn’t tell us the number of children that were there. As you mentioned, several reporters have gotten their hands on internal numbers, and so it seems to be about 3,200 children are in these cells. I can’t imagine the reason why this would be law enforcement-sensitive. And I, as a reporter, can think of the reasons why people want to know.

So, I think, you know, at a very basic level, we should at least know the numbers of children that are being kept in different facilities, both at the border and also in shelters. That would be a great start. I would love to see the Biden administration just give us some really, really basic transparency.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Aura, can you explain how the pandemic has been impacting the ways in which unaccompanied minor children are being held? I mean, is it taking longer to release them as a result of the pandemic? And explain what Title 42 is and how the Trump administration made the CDC invoke this title.

AURA BOGADO: Yeah. So, Title 42 is a public health title, that it’s a practice that keeps the public health — it centers the public health of the current U.S. population. And so, the idea is that you don’t take people coming from the outside that might bring something like COVID into the United States. As it is, we know that COVID is already in the United States. And so, that was under the prior administration. The CDC felt the need to close the border for that reason. That’s still in place. That’s not to say that no one has entered the border, even during when Trump was still in office, but certainly now that Biden is in office. But people are still being barred from entering on the premise that there is a public health concern. And there absolutely is. There absolutely is a public health concern. People are still, unfortunately, dying from what is now a preventable disease, because we do have a vaccine.

And so, people are still being barred. And yes, sometimes things do take longer. You do want to make sure that no one is in the type of situation in which they may possibly be spreading the disease. But again, there are ways to prevent this. There are ways to — I think, in the last year, we’ve had a lot of time to figure out how to socially distance. And that may be something that is taking longer in order to process children through, but it doesn’t really go to the heart of the question, which I think, for a lot of people, there is concern of the sheer number of children that are being kept at the border in these Border Patrol facilities and also in shelters.

AMY GOODMAN: And the effect of this? I’m going to go back a number of years, when you were a reporter at ColorLines, in 2014. This is under Obama. You spoke with a migrant girl from Honduras named Mayeli Hernández, who described what it was like to be held in a hielera when she was 11 years old.

MAYELI HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] It was really cold there, and they had us inside. We were there for a long time. We didn’t sleep. We didn’t sleep, and our eyes were really red. We didn’t shower. We didn’t brush our teeth. We hardly did anything. They don’t give you a bed to sleep in there. It’s really cold. You shiver from the cold. There was only one bathroom, one room, and these big blocks of pure cement. That’s where we would sit and lay down. There are no windows, and you can’t tell if it’s day or night. You can’t see anything. You’re just stuck in a room with lights.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about a hielera, what’s known as an icebox. That’s 2014. Are they experiencing the same thing today? If you could just briefly address that, before we end?

AURA BOGADO: Yes, that is what children are still describing, because they’re still in the same facilities that were being used under Obama, continued under Trump, and continue under Biden.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to just ask you, in the minute we have left — congratulations on getting a vaccine. Can you talk about your journey in getting better? It’s so great to see you so well, Aura.

AURA BOGADO: Oh, that’s such a great question. Yes, I’m a cancer survivor, almost two years out. And I was able to get a leftover dose a couple of days ago. My arm was a little sore yesterday, but I think I’m pretty much back to normal today. And I am very, very grateful that I was able to get that vaccine, and can’t wait until I can see you in person and then, you know, also all my loved ones. It’s been a very long year.

AMY GOODMAN: Aura, thanks so much for being with us. I look forward to so much more great reporting from you. Aura Bogado, senior investigative reporter at Reveal who’s long covered immigration, including the conditions of detained migrant children.

Next up, we look at the global fight over COVID vaccine patents. The U.S. and other wealthy nations are once again backing the big drug companies, while the World Health Organization says patent rights should be waived. Stay with us.

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