The Biden administration is facing the first real crisis. The number of migrants arriving at and trying to cross into the United States from Mexico threatens to become the worst illegal immigration surge in 20 years. Worse, the wave of migrants crashing against the border includes many children arriving without parents or legal guardians.
Republicans have alleged that the Biden administration’s relaxed approach to the enforcement of immigration law is responsible for the crisis. Democrats insist that the forces “pushing” migrants to the United States, including relative rates of poverty, violence, and corruption in Central America, are more relevant than those “pulling” them toward the border. Whatever the causes, the outcome is the same: kids institutionalized in makeshift facilities.
The Biden administration has not advertised this policy as though it was a form of “deterrence” like the Trump administration did—a callous rebranding of existing U.S. law, which didn’t have much of a deterrent effect anyway. But it has nevertheless tried to tackle this crisis in much the same way as its predecessor.
Existing statutes compel children without accompaniment crossing the border to be transferred out of Customs and Border Protection’s control and into the Department of Human Services’ care within 72 hours. That involves separating children and parents ahead of processing. Once processed, those minors can be released back to parents or guardians or transferred into sponsor or foster care—where HHS routinely loses track of their charges. But when space is limited, and processing capacity is overwhelmed, that can take a longer time. And that is what is happening now, even though it risks transforming an immigration crisis into a humanitarian crisis.
It turns out that, whether you call it “zero tolerance” or not, the procedures that dictate what happens to unaccompanied minors at the border have been relatively consistent across both Trump and Biden administrations. In all, what we were told routinely in 2018 is “not normal”—so much so that liberal lawmakers and pundits alike resolved to harass Trump administration officials until they could not emerge from their homes without feeling unsafe—is, in fact, a routinized response to extraordinary circumstances.
But what are the conditions like in these facilities? We do not know.
“CBP facilities are not open to the public,” Reuters reported. Reports suggest that overcrowding is rampant. Pop-up facilities are being erected throughout Texas, and Dallas’s downtown convention center is being repurposed into a temporary shelter. Children are being forced to sleep on mats with foil sheets and are going days on end without showering.
This, too, is eerily familiar. “We have not been allowed to go inside and view this with our own eyes,” said Fox News correspondent Jeff Paul in 2018 during a similar crisis. “The government cites privacy concerns and says it is trying to accommodate requests, but many observers are skeptical,” CNN reported at the time. “It’s part of a broader pattern of problematic secrecy.” News organizations mounted a full-court press against the Trump administration’s closed-door policy, which officials maintained was in place to protect the privacy of the minors in U.S. custody. “Government handouts satisfy few,” PBS News reported. “It’s not enough for the government to provide curated images,” NBC News president Noah Oppenheim insisted. “The public expects and demands and has the right to see a verified picture of what is going on inside these detention centers and how this policy is being carried out in their name.”
“It’s not normal to see kids sitting still for that long, days on end,” said Democratic Rep. Grace Meng, who visited a migrant detention facility in the summer of 2018. University Professors Allyson Hobbs and Anan Minian agreed. “It’s no surprise that this practice seems normal,” they wrote of child detention procedures in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed. “But this practice is not ‘normal.’”
But the abnormal normality doesn’t end there.
Mainstream media outlets attempting to cover the crisis at the border have been confounded by the lack of people within American law enforcement who are able to talk on the record about the conditions on the ground. That is because, as NBC News reported, there is an “unofficial ‘gag order’” in place restricting what Border Patrol agents can and cannot say about the crisis.
“Border Patrol officials have been told to deny all media requests for ‘ride-alongs’ with agents along the southern border,” the NBC News report continued, “local press officers are instructed to send all information queries, even from local media, to the press office in Washington for approval; and those responsible for cultivating data about the number of migrants in custody have been reminded not to share the information with anyone to prevent leaks, the officials said.”
The tight-lipped response reporters received from border patrol agents in the Trump years was a source of controversy, too. “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,” the Washington Post reported in early 2019. “Rarer still are interviews with federal agency managers and employees or with the children themselves.” Border Patrol agents were not at liberty to describe these facilities’ conditions on the record then, either. Though they did so off the record, and what they described was bleak. As one unnamed agent told CBS News, “you hear kids crying and simultaneously, you get hit with the smell of people that have been there for too long,”
But unlike 2018, we have not seen the press treat it as a moral crisis, nor have immigration officials been bombarded with demands that they quit their jobs in protest.
“They aren’t supposed to talk about it,” one California college student said of CPB agents in an interview with the New York Times. “I wonder how they can sleep at night if they have to lock up kids in cages like animals.” Indeed, that kind of emotional blackmail was a common occurrence. CPB officials, current and former, described receiving threats and attacks on their character. “How bad of people we are,” one said. “How taxpayer dollars should not be used to abuse individuals.” One retired CPB agent described how jarring it was to go from obscure to object of intense hatreds overnight. And yet, the Times reported, “the agency has been a willing enforcer of the Trump administration’s harshest immigration policies,” so maybe the abuse was deserved.
These border crises are not identical. The volume of migrants is greater now than it was then. The administration is more accommodating toward immigration as an ideal than it was then. And the press treatment of these crises is tonally distinct from the distraught coverage Americans consumed at the end of the last decade. But when it comes to enforcement of the law and best practices in that pursuit, the two administrations have struck out remarkably similar approaches. Maybe what was “not normal” all those years ago was more normal than we were told.