The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Kids in cages’: It’s true that Obama built the cages at the border. But Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy had no precedent.

A young child in the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen, Tex., in August 2019. Border Patrol officials said that 1,267 people were being held and processed in the facility at the time. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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The phrase “kids in cages” has become a catchall for the Trump administration’s approach to immigration enforcement in recent years, to the president’s evident frustration. As he pointed out during Thursday night’s presidential debate, he didn’t build the “cages” — the Obama administration did.

When moderator Kristen Welker asked about the president’s “zero tolerance” policy in 2018 and the separation of thousands of migrant parents from their children, President Trump immediately tried to skirt responsibility by blaming former president Barack Obama.

“They built cages,” he said, referring to the Obama administration. “You know, they used to say I built the cages. And then they had a picture in a certain newspaper and it was a picture of these horrible cages and they said, look at these cages, President Trump built them. And then it was determined they were built in 2014. That was him. They built cages.”

To defend taking immigrant kids from their parents, Trump blamed Biden

Biden responded by stating, correctly, that the Obama administration did not systematically separate parents from their children at the border, a practice that generated such backlash that the first lady and Trump’s daughter Ivanka joined the groundswell of people who pressured him to end it.

“Let’s talk about what we’re talking about,” Biden said. “What happened? Parents were ripped — their kids were ripped from their arms and separated and now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal. It’s criminal.”

The two claims at the core of the exchange — that Obama built the cages and Trump did something unprecedented with them — were not wrong. But the wider context and history were missing.

In spring 2014, Central American families, teenagers and children began crossing the border into the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, turning themselves over to U.S. agents in unprecedented numbers.

Fleeing poverty, chronic violence and joblessness, the families also were spurred by smugglers telling them that children who cross the border could generally avoid lengthy detention and certain deportation. Those claims were accurate.

By May 2014, thousands of Central Americans were streaming into Texas, overwhelming U.S. agents and leaving Border Patrol detention cells jampacked. More than 4,000 adults and children were arriving a day at the peak of the crisis.

Border Patrol stations were so overcrowded that agents began using the “sally port” areas outside the stations — little more than outdoor garages — as holding pens. Mothers with babies and young children were left for hours in 90-plus-degree heat, sprawled out on concrete floors with little more than bologna sandwiches and Kool-Aid.

During a July 12 tour of a detention center in McAllen, Tex., reporters saw almost 400 men being held in cages. They allegedly crossed the border illegally. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Washington Post obtained a video of the conditions at the McAllen station not long after the Breitbart website published photos showing the dire situation inside the facility.

The Obama administration responded to the outrage by rushing to expand its capacity to handle the new migration wave at the border, to adapt an infrastructure built to handle single adult men, not families and children.

The government acquired an empty warehouse a few blocks from the McAllen station and converted it into a sprawling new facility that opened in July 2014, a place that had capacity for 1,500 detainees. The new “Central Processing Center,” or CPC, was clean, spacious, air-conditioned and a major improvement over the cramped detention cells and sweltering garages.

To keep different demographic groups safely apart — a standard practice in detention settings — the U.S. Border Patrol used chain-link fencing to create partitions in the cavernous warehouse. One area was designated for teenage boys, another for mothers with small children, another for entire family groups, and so on.

The chain-link fencing was cheap, allowed for good ventilation and carried the benefit of allowing agents to supervise the entire facility, by affording them full visibility into the enclosures.

Its grim, industrial appearance, however, was redolent of a livestock operation rather than a humane facility. Migrants and some agents soon derided it as “la perrera” — the dog kennel.

The facility was controversial at the time, but it wasn’t until Trump’s zero-tolerance episode in spring 2018 that the facility came to symbolize the kind of administrative cruelty associated with the intentional separation of children from their parents by the government.

As criticism of the separation practices grew, the government allowed television crews inside the CPC, intending to show that families were being treated humanely. It backfired. Instead, viewers were shocked and appalled at the sight of children staring back through the chain-links of a human warehouse.

Trump ended the zero-tolerance efforts in June 2018, after six weeks. The controversy and attention the episode generated — and Trump’s declaration that children would no longer be separated — was something smugglers quickly seized on. They began telling would-be clients that children were a passport into the United States.

A new migration wave built, and by May 2019 more than 144,000 migrants were taken into U.S. custody amid a record surge of Central American families and children. The CPC filled to nearly twice its capacity, and while the Trump administration occasionally allowed lawmakers and reporters inside, it imposed strict controls on filming and photography.

The facility is mostly empty now, the result of emergency coronavirus enforcement measures that allow the Border Patrol to quickly “expel” most migrants to Mexico. But despite calls to replace the chain-links with plexiglass or another material, the warehouse and the chain-links — built by Obama, used in an unprecedented way by Trump — remain unchanged.