Eileen Sullivan, The New York Times
Published: 2021-05-25 14:13:27 BdST
Where once only Twitter assaults and dressing-downs at House hearings would suffice, Democratic lawmakers are voicing worries privately to administration officials and the small staff at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the care. If problems persist, the lawmakers say they call again.
Democrats say the contrast is for good reason: former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies were deliberately cruel, devised as a deterrent to would-be migrants, while the Biden administration is trying hard to deal with a bad hand.
“The difference is you have an administration who wants to solve a lot of these challenges, and their heart is in a much better place,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas.
Rep Veronica Escobar said she has so far been impressed with the administration officials working on the issue.
“They have a solid vision and a heart of gold, and they seem to want to do the right thing, which is different from what I experienced during the Trump administration,” Escobar said. “During the Trump administration, it was all excuses or, ‘Sorry, this is the way it is.’ ”
This time, Republicans are the ones outraged.
“You and your colleagues previously decried the humanitarian crisis on the border in 2019, blaming ‘the Trump administration’s inhumane policies’ for creating it,” Republicans on the House Oversight Committee wrote to their Democratic counterparts in March. They added, “It appears that committee Democrats only care about these issues when there is a Republican in the White House.”
Even those who held their tongues as children were separated from their parents or hustled into cage-like enclosures during the Trump years have taken advantage.
“It’s more than a crisis; this is a human heartbreak,” Rep Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, said in March.
Handling the record-setting number of migrant children arriving alone at the border this year has been one of the Biden administration’s earliest challenges. With a shortage of available shelter space managed by the Health and Human Services Department, thousands of children were forced to stay in border cells where they slept on floor mats, shoulder to shoulder, and most were given crumpled aluminium blankets.
Rep Henry Cuellar said he spoke with members of Biden’s transition team, and not long after the inauguration warned them about the increase in children arriving at the southern border. “I think they were caught off guard,” he said.
It quickly became a public relations problem, prompting outrage from immigration and human rights groups — and Republicans — that started to strike a similar note to the indignation during the Trump administration.
The Biden administration has avoided characterising the situation as a crisis. But getting the children out of the border jails became a top priority. And over the course of a few weeks in March and April, the administration set up a dozen emergency shelters where the children could be housed in facilities overseen by Health and Human Services. As of Sunday, there were 18,187 children under its care, the department said.
It is broadly accepted that the emergency shelters are a significant improvement over Border Patrol holding cells. But lawyers and child advocates have said some of the conditions at the emergency shelters have been inadequate.
Two of the emergency shelters, one in Houston and another in Erie, Pennsylvania, were shut down by Health and Human Services just weeks after they opened because of poor living conditions for the children.
“The good news is that they listened,” Rep Sylvia R Garcia said of officials at Health and Human Services. Garcia, a former social worker, said she saw red flags at the Houston shelter, a repurposed warehouse, before it even opened. The plan was to house about 500 girls between the ages of 13 and 17. Garcia said the facility did not have enough bathrooms and there was no clear space for the children to eat or for recreation.
“They were concerned about the kids. They were concerned about their care — every single one of them,” Garcia said of the officials she spoke with. The shelter opened April 1 and closed April 17. “They were not going to put children at risk.”
Escobar, whose district includes the largest emergency shelter in the Health and Human Services network, at Fort Bliss, said she raised concerns about conditions early on. And on a visit there Friday, she said she saw significant improvements over six weeks ago.
But, she said, “there are still things that are not acceptable to me.”
For one, the staff could not answer some of Escobar’s questions, such as how long children were staying there. She said children told her they had been there for 48 days. “That’s unacceptable,” she said.
Escobar also said the shelter was too big and should be broken into multiple shelters on the Fort Bliss campus. She said she raised this concern about “mega-sites” with Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services, on a recent call with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Castro said he shared Escobar’s concerns, though he dismissed worries about the size of the shelter and said, during a call with reporters Monday, there had to be a plan for how to house these children when they arrive at the border.
He also said that the conditions at the emergency facilities were not only better than those at the border facilities, “but it’s better than what these kids were experiencing before they were in the hands” of border agents.
“We’ve made tremendous progress in being able to care for all the kids that are coming into our custody,” Becerra said a day after he visited the Fort Bliss shelter, the second shelter he has visited since he was confirmed in mid-March. Escobar and Castro joined him on the visit.
As of last week, the Fort Bliss shelter housed more than 4,600 children, and the administration is prepared to increase that number to 10,000 if necessary.
Early reports about the conditions at the shelter cited a huge facility with soft-sided tents where children were going days without clean clothes, were sleeping in “bunk cots” and lacked enough options for recreation. The children “generally describe not feeling cared for and a sense of desperation,” Leecia Welch, a lawyer and the senior director of the legal advocacy and child welfare practice at the National Centre for Youth Law, said after her visit there on April 28.
Becerra said he did not see that Sunday.
“I’d love to see the kids that folks are saying are having traumatic experiences at any of these sites,” Becerra said Monday during a call with reporters.
“They face trauma, but they’re getting to sleep in a bed,” he said. “They’ve had medical check-ups, they’re being fed good meals, they’re able to have recreational activity and they’re being provided professional assistance if they do have behaviour health issues, which is more than they have before they came into our hands.”
Welch on Monday agreed that the children, most of whom are fleeing poverty and violence in Central America, experience trauma on their journey to the southern border.
“But once they are in the custody of the federal government, they deserve better,” she said. “Detaining traumatised children in these conditions and worse for extended periods,” she said, violates legal standards for holding migrant children and is “harmful to children’s health and well-being.”
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