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Biden Pledges That Border Shelter For Teens 'Won't Stay Open Very Long'

The Biden administration has reopened shelters for migrant teens that were first used by the Trump administration in Carrizo Springs, Texas. Long trailers that previously housed oil workers in two-bedroom suites were turned into dorms with bunk beds, classrooms and medical care.
Eric Gay
The Biden administration has reopened shelters for migrant teens that were first used by the Trump administration in Carrizo Springs, Texas. Long trailers that previously housed oil workers in two-bedroom suites were turned into dorms with bunk beds, classrooms and medical care.

Updated Feb. 26 at 7:45 p.m. ET

The White House is continuing to defend itself against criticism from the left and right for reopening a Trump-era shelter used to house unaccompanied teenagers crossing the border from Mexico.

President Biden said on Friday that thousands of unaccompanied children were coming across the border as part of migration surge, prompting the move to reopen the facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas.

"Our hope and expectation is that won't stay open very long, that we will be able to provide for every kid that comes across the border to safely be housed in a facility that is licensed," Biden said in his first public comments on the situation during an interview with Univision.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier that the administration needed additional space because of the social distance requirements of the coronavirus. She said housing them in the Texas facility was the safest option available.

The alternative was sending the children back on a dangerous journey to their home countries or releasing them into the United States without properly vetting their potential sponsor, according to the White House.

In January, more than 5,700 unaccompanied minors crossed the border, up from 4,850 in December and 4,500 in November, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP.

The first group of teenagers arrived at the Carrizo Springs facility on Monday. It has the capacity to house 700 individuals between the ages of 13 and 17.

The controversy over the shelters is just the latest example of challenges the Biden administration faces trying to transition from campaigning on immigration to governing and ensuring laws on immigration are followed.

That includes confronting comparisons to former President Donald Trump, who made tough immigration enforcement a centerpiece of his administration.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., denounced the opening of the Carrizo Springs facility, charging that the Biden team should find other ways to care for the teenage migrants seeking asylum.

"This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration or party," Ocasio-Cortez said in a heavily circulated tweet about the opening of the Texas facility.

Critics on the right have likened the housing of these children by the Biden administration to earlier accusations against his predecessor of putting "kids in cages."

Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former senior adviser on immigration in both the Bush and Obama administrations, said the comparisons to the Trump administration are unfair and not accurate.

It's true that the facilities were built by the Trump administration, but she said the similarities largely stop there.

This is not "kids in cages," she said, which referred to detention facilities run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Carrizo Springs facility is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, and it includes educational services and medical care.

Pictures of the facility show children staying in rooms with bunk beds and having access to sporting facilities.

Brown said it's not as good as being in a person's home, but the government needs to take time to ensure children are placed in safe hands.

She said the Biden team inherited a hollowed out immigration system. They can't just release the children without properly vetting potential sponsors. But they also need time to develop a new system.

"For a lot of the advocacy organizations that saw bad things happen in facilities under the Trump administration, they're disappointed Biden is reusing them," Brown said. "But really what are the alternatives the Biden administration would have right now available to them?"

The test will be how long the children are held, according to Brown, who said the Biden administration will need to be transparent about its operation.

Advocates agree.

Clara Long, the associate U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch, said this may be an OK short-term solution, but there are concerns that it will become a status quo.

She noted problems of violence and abuse arising out of large facilities holding migrant children.

"People are right to be speaking out and trying to hold the Biden administration to its promises, because the president was elected on a platform that included a humane approach to the border," she said. "And opening up massive congregate care facilities for children who, while unaccompanied under the law, are traveling with family, doesn't really indicate that they're following through on that promise."

First lady Jill Biden, who joined the president for the interview with Univision, said it's very important to the administration that the children are treated in a humane way.

"We want to make sure these children are safe," she said, "that they get mental health services, they get physical health services, they get education."

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.