The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, Biden’s new border move isn’t like Trump’s ‘kids in cages’

A sign outside a facility for unaccompanied children in Carrizo Springs, Tex. (Sergio Flores/The Washington Post)
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For as long as former president Donald Trump’s highly controversial policies on children at the U.S.-Mexico border have been at issue, there have been allegations of hypocrisy leveled against critics of those policies. Democrats accused Trump of putting “kids in cages,” so Trump and his defenders pointed out that the chain-link partitions were built by the Obama administration. Democrats decried the separation of children from their families, so Trump defenders pointed out this happened sometimes under Barack Obama, too.

Both of those allegations of hypocrisy were vastly oversimplified. As The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff wrote in October, the scale and implementation of Trump’s family separation policy quite simply bore no resemblance to what happened under the Obama administration.

But now, it’s happening again.

The Post’s Silvia Foster-Frau wrote Monday night that the Biden administration has reactivated a child migrant facility in Texas. The facility in Carrizo Springs, Tex., can hold up to 700 teenage children and is being reopened because of a surge in unaccompanied minors arriving at the border and coronavirus-related restrictions on how many people existing facilities can hold, among other factors.

To more than a few folks, this is a stunning development from the administration of a president who made “kids in cages” a rallying cry against Trump during the 2020 campaign. They also attacked the media for a supposed double standard in its coverage.

“Kids in cages is now ‘migrant facility for children,’ ” wrote conservative radio host Dana Loesch.

An adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Omri Ceren, echoed that sentiment.

An adviser to Trump, Steve Cortes, also suggested that the media was no longer calling cages “cages” now that Biden is in office.

Townhall and Fox News both attacked the coverage for allegedly taking it easy on Biden.

The first thing to note is that The Post’s coverage didn’t exactly hail this as a good thing. It quotes immigrant rights activists criticizing the development. One called it a “huge step backward,” while an activist who has protested at the facility warned about what might result from the reopening.

But even that activist pointed to the fact that this isn’t really “kids in cages.” Rosey Abuabara said she worries that Biden won’t make the situation better than it has been in the past at Carrizo, but added that, “I consoled myself with the fact that it was considered the Cadillac of [migrant child] centers.”

And here’s the biggest point: Trump’s policy on children at the border wasn’t controversial merely because it resulted in children being held at the border, which is a long-standing reality and is what will happen at this facility. It was controversial because it forced children to be separated from their parents given its hard-line policy requiring that the parents be held and not released into the country (and given that children couldn’t be held with their parents). This, in effect, made for more children (often very young) that needed to be held alone — about 3,000 in total — beyond the unaccompanied minors (who are often older) who arrive.

It was also controversial in large part because of some of the conditions in which many of the children were then held: often in large groups behind chain-link fences at Border Patrol stations.

Whether you called those “cages” or “chain-link partitions” or anything else, though, that’s not the situation at the border facility the Biden administration is reactivating. Carrizo has many more facilities for those staying there — to the point where it costs $775 per day per child. Nor is the administration forcing these children to be separated from their parents. Whatever one thinks about how these children are handled once they’re taken into custody — and there are valid debates about both the speed and efficacy of that process — it bears little resemblance to what happened under Trump. They are not being held behind chain-link fences at a Border Patrol station because of a policy that requires them to be separated from their parents.

Many children arrive at the border as unaccompanied minors, leading to difficult decisions about what to do with them. Many are seeking to be united with family members already in the United States. But some aren’t, and they can’t be released without an adult sponsor taking custody. Releasing them to the wrong person leads to all kinds of problems; in 2014, for instance, there was an uproar after traffickers took some teens who were released to go work on an egg farm.

The Biden administration has many problems to deal with on the border, for a variety of reasons. Part of the reason for the current surge in both families and unaccompanied minors arriving without authorization appears to be its softer approach to enforcement, which gives border-crossers more hope that they’ll be allowed into the country.

These issues will surely test the president in the months and years to come. But suggesting that this is at all akin to what Trump did with children on the border — or that the media is soft-pedaling what the Biden administration is doing — just doesn’t add up.

Nick Miroff contributed to this report.