In Defense of Biden's Detention of Immigrant Minors at the Border

Some light on a hotly contested issue

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 24, 2021

On February 22, the Washington Post reported that the Biden administration had begun moving unaccompanied alien children (UACs) from Border Patrol custody into an emergency shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas, run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It is the right move, but then — unlike many — I have been consistent in stating that for years.

In politics, there is a saying that "every stick is a good stick to beat your opponent with"; that is, regardless of the issue, if you can use it against the other side, you will. UAC detention tugs at the heartstrings, and so, under the Trump administration, the "kids in cages" trope was born, to beat down the 45th president for detaining UACs at the border.

Then-candidate Biden peddled that trope, stating on his campaign website: "It is a moral failing and a national shame when ... children are locked away in overcrowded detention centers and the government seeks to keep them there indefinitely." That was not factually accurate then, nor is it factually accurate now that Biden is detaining UACs himself.

What is factually accurate? Here goes:

Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (HSA) UACs are to be quickly transferred from DHS into HHS custody. Why HHS? I was in the room the day that this amendment was added to the HSA, and I still have no idea, but the law's the law.

In an April 2019 Backgrounder, I explained that HHS contracts to place those children into one of 170 state-licensed shelters in 23 states or into foster care, for placement with "sponsors" (usually a parent or other relative), most of whom are themselves illegally present in the United States.

That this process encourages illegal-alien parents to pay smugglers to bring their children to the United States should be obvious, but that is another issue.

Here's the Biden administration's current problem: Capacity at those HHS shelters has been cut in half due to CDC pandemic guidelines at the same time that the number of UACs apprehended at the border has been surging. Border Patrol apprehensions of UACs are up 64 percent this fiscal year through January compared to the same period a year ago, or in real numbers, 19,719 UACs in FY 2021.

January has not traditionally been a big month for illegal entries; since FY 2014, it is usually the month that the number of migrants apprehended at the border bottoms out. Not this year, as the Post notes. The 5,707 UACs apprehended by Border Patrol last month was the highest in recent history, suggesting a surge of UACs to follow in the spring.

Given the shortage of bed space at HHS shelters for the UACs, the Biden administration had three choices.

First, it could have released those UACs, either by turning them out in the streets or placing them with the first sponsor that came along. The first option is a non-starter, and the second only slightly less so, because HHS needs to screen potential sponsors to ensure that the UACs will not be trafficked — or worse — once they leave government custody.

Second, it could have left those UACs in Border Patrol custody. That is not a viable option, either, because as I have explained numerous times in the past, Border Patrol facilities were built in the 1980s and 1990s to house single adults (usually males) — the main demographic group that CBP then dealt with — not UACs.

The third option would have been to open an HHS facility to provide care and custody for those UACs. Carrizo Springs fits the bill, as it had been used for the same purpose by the Trump administration. That was the best option, and the one that the Biden administration chose, and I applaud the effort.

Nonetheless, all of this makes me very, very mad. Why?

The same scenario the Biden administration is now facing happened between May and June, 2019, as I explained in a June 26, 2019 post captioned "If You Are Just Now Angry About UAC Detention, You Haven't Been Paying Attention". The only difference is that then, the Trump administration was out of money for HHS shelters, and went, hat in hand, to Congress to ask for more.

It took Congress eight weeks to provide that funding. Instead of getting right to it, though, members demagogued the issue — using it as a stick to beat the Trump administration with. The press added more heat than light to the question of UAC detention, and at times, seemed to not understand the problem at all.

Rather, reporters then often conflated UAC detention with family separations under the short-lived "zero tolerance" policy that was ended by Trump a year before (I explained those separations in an October 23 post). Frankly, Trump's own statements at the time did not add a lot of light to the issue, either, contending that he was doing a better job of detaining UACs than the Obama administration had.

The press does not appear to be doing any better this time around. Consider a February 23 "Analysis" piece in the Post on the reopening of the Carrizo Springs facility, captioned "No, Biden's new border move isn't like Trump's 'kids in cages'".

Much of that piece is accurate, but the author also asserts that the current Biden policy is different from Trump's because UACs now "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."

That actually begs a pretty big question that the author does not substantiate: That migrant children separated from parents under zero tolerance from April to June 2018 were "being held behind chain-link fences at a Border Patrol station".

I certainly know that — again, due to lack of funding from a Congress that was not providing it — UACs were held for way too long in Border Patrol facilities between May and June 2019, as explained above. But those migrant children who were separated from their parents under zero tolerance a year before? I am not aware that they were held in Border Patrol facilities alone for any period of time, at all.

Logically, that would not have been the case, because such separation was not the Trump administration's choice, but rather what the law required. And, what the law (again, the HSA) required is that once the parents passed into DOJ custody to be prosecuted for illegal entry (the "zero tolerance" part), those previously accompanied children became UACs who had to go into HHS custody.

But the fact that children separated from their parents under zero tolerance were detained in Border Patrol facilities is key to the analysis author's point that the detention of UACs by Biden at Carrizo Springs is different from the detention of UACs by Trump in the spring of 2019 — which happened almost a year after zero tolerance ended and again came down to a lack of congressional funding.

Enough, already. We need to have a real, adult conversation about those children. UACs are endangered and traumatized during the trip to the border, and therefore, the government must discourage their entry. That means removing the incentives for their parents to have them smuggled into the United States. To do that, though, we have to recognize what those incentives are.

In the interim, the president got it right this time in reopening Carrizo Springs. But if he fails to address the incentives that encourage parents to trust their children to smugglers, and the issue just gets demogogued even more, he will have to open even more HHS shelters for a coming wave of UACs.