Overcrowded facilities. Sick, filthy and hungry children sleeping on concrete floors. Young children taking care of infants and toddlers in the enforced absence of their parents.
Apart from their appalling specifics, the stories were notable for one element: They were all based on secondhand accounts. Reporters were unable to see the facilities themselves or speak to any of the children. Instead, they relied on descriptions provided by lawyers and advocates who were granted access under a legal settlement with the Border Patrol.
The blackout on press access has left Americans largely in the dark about conditions in government facilities designed to handle migrants who have crossed the border. Photographs and TV images are rare and often dated. Rarer still are interviews with federal agency managers and employees or with the children themselves.
Journalists, government officials and migrant advocates agree that permitting reporters to see the facilities firsthand would change public perceptions about the treatment of migrants. There’s disagreement, however, about how it would change.
“If journalists had access to the detention centers at the border where children are being held in filthy conditions, those centers would not exist,” said Elora Mukherjee, an attorney who interviewed children at the Texas facility and described them to reporters last week. “If videos were released there would be massive changes” because the public outcry would be enormous.
Mukherjee, who directs the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, said the conditions she witnessed at the federally run facility in Clint were the “worst ever” in the dozen years she has been representing and interviewing migrant children in federal custody.
Government officials say legal issues, especially privacy concerns, make unfettered media access to border facilities a non-starter. According to one official, the general counsel’s office of the Department of Homeland Security, which supervises border law enforcement agencies, has advised the agency that it is unlawful for third parties to take photographs or videos of “pretrial detainees,” especially of children, who cannot legally consent to such media portrayals.
Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which supervises many of the detention facilities, have periodically given tours of the facilities to journalists on the condition that no images or recordings are made.
The restrictive media policy, however, is under debate within the two agencies. Some officials argue that more transparency would be beneficial because it would allow the public to see the extensive efforts made by government employees and contractors dealing with a spike in the number of migrants. Even images that document inadequacies at the facilities might be beneficial because they could help build popular support for more resettlement funding from Congress.
A DHS spokesman declined to comment. Customs and Border Protection officials did not reply to a request for comment.
Caitlin Dickerson, who covers immigration for the New York Times, said gaining access to the detention facilities — never easy under any circumstances — has gotten harder since December, when two children died in federal custody. (Since then, at least five more have died.) Dickerson isn’t sure whether officials are intentionally barring reporters or they’re simply unable to deal with an upsurge in the news media’s requests for entry.
In any case, she said, the press tours that officials have permitted are typically short and highly structured, with no interviews or follow-up allowed. Access is usually restricted to only part of a facility.
Reporters on the beat say they often have to use indirect and secondary means to get information, including talking to contractors, adult relatives of the children and lawyers advocating for the children. An infamous audio recording of children wailing while held at one facility last year was obtained by a civil rights attorney and published by ProPublica.
“We’re doing our best as journalists with the information that’s available to us,” said Martha Mendoza, an Associated Press investigative reporter who broke last week’s story about the Clint facility with colleagues Cedar Attanasio and Garance Burke. “We’re using all the tools we can find to hold everyone accountable, which is what our role is.”
Burke said conditions for children in Customs and Border Protection custody have never been good, and concerns about their treatment there predate the Trump administration. The difference this time, she said, is there are more children than ever living in unhealthful conditions.
Burke and Mendoza last year obtained confidential government documents that showed the full extent of the child-migrant crisis. The two reporters were part of a team of AP journalists whose coverage became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year in national reporting.
Their work suggests sunlight can have positive effects.
On Monday, four days after the AP reported on conditions at the Texas center, Border Patrol officials removed most of the children from it. Just 30 children remained at the facility, down from some 300 before the news stories emerged. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), whose district covers El Paso, complained to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) leadership following the news reports. She said most of the children had been moved to a temporary site nearby with rollout mattresses, showers, medical facilities and air conditioning.
However, the agency returned 100 children to the station on Tuesday, citing lack of bed space in U.S. shelters and insufficient funding to expand facilities for children.
Also on Tuesday, CBP’s acting commissioner, John Sanders, resigned, continuing the instability in the leadership of agencies overseeing border operations amid a surge in the migrant population. Sanders had been in the job for less than two months.
In a statement emailed to the AP on Monday, the Border Patrol offered no apologies for conditions at its Clint facility. “Our short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations,” it said, “and we urgently need additional humanitarian funding to manage this crisis.”