Recent reports of children being held for prolonged periods in packed unhygienic conditions, sleeping on mats on the floor of border jails, conjured the faces of children I spoke with in the same dangerous and unacceptable situation in 2019, under the administration of former US President Donald Trump. No child should be held for hours, much less days, in such conditions. But there’s one important difference from 2019 – an administration that says it is building a system to manage the border in alignment with the values of humanity and dignity.
The administration of President Joe Biden has moved quickly to roll back policies blocking access to asylum and ending prolonged family detention. These are welcome, initial steps. It’s positive to see the emphasis on placing child welfare professionals at the border and working with local humanitarians to create a robust reception system. Using the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to set up temporary facilities for unaccompanied children makes good sense when you consider the peril children face in border jails and the need to move them immediately to even marginally more appropriate environments.
Transforming border reception to a humanitarian model requires many, large federal agencies to implement a wholesale shift in short-, medium-, and long-term approaches. Meanwhile, predictably, migration continues, including the long-standing phenomenon of children coming to the US border seeking safety and people fleeing violence and abuse. While the administration has made important progress, kids are still stuck in border jails because the administration of former President Trump destroyed what system existed for keeping kids safe at the border. The current situation requires urgent, sustained action to address this failure. Safe, swift reunification procedures should continue to be refined, starting from the moment kids cross the border. If kids are held for more than a few hours, that should happen in licensed, safe childcare facilities staffed and set up for longer stays. In the interim and over the long-term, arbitrary and unnecessary detention should end and transparency and oversight of government operations and contractors should be a priority.
Now and for the next months, the Biden administration should stay focused on making the humanitarian vision it has set forth a reality. That means putting political noise and disinformation about the border aside. It also means immediately dropping a proposal to resume summary expulsions of unaccompanied teenagers, ending summary expulsions for all migrants and taking continued steps to ensure children are kept safe, either with family or other responsible caretakers.