This week, the Biden administration did the unthinkable. It reopened a Trump-era detention site for migrant children. The detention center, a reconverted camp for oil field workers in Carrizo Springs, Texas, is expected to hold 700 children between the ages of 13 and 17, and dozens of kids have already arrived there.
Rather than seeking out new and better solutions, the Biden administration is instead trying to sell a public image of a kinder, gentler imprisonment.
Mark Weber, spokesperson for Health and Human Services (HHS), the agency that oversees the welfare of unaccompanied migrant children told the Washington Post that “the Biden administration is moving away from the ‘law-enforcement focused’ approach of the Trump administration to one in which child welfare is more centric”.
That may play well as a soundbite, but how welfare-centric is it to place children in jail in the first place? And if you don’t think it’s a jail, you should know that the “unaccompanied teens sent to the Carrizo Springs shelter will not be allowed to leave the facility”.
The camp’s operation will be “based on a federal emergency management system”, where “trailers are labeled with names such as Alpha, Charlie and Echo”, names which are commonly used in military detention practices. (Camp Echo, for example, is a notorious site in Guantánamo Bay.
Staff members will not be in uniform will “wear matching black-and-white T-shirts displaying their roles: disaster case manager, incident support, emergency management” and that the trailer is at the entrance, has flowers, butterflies and handmade posters.
In 1997, a class-action lawsuit settlement established standards for the detention and release of unaccompanied minors taken into custody by the authorities. According to the Flores Settlement Agreement, the federal government must transfer these unaccompanied children to a non-secure and licensed facility within days of being in custody. In an emergency, the government can keep the children for up to 20 days while seeking to reunite them with family members or place them with a sponsor.
The 66-acre Carrizo Springs site is a secure site (the kids can’t leave), is unlicensed by the state of Texas (it’s operated by a government contractor for the Office of Refugee Resettlement), and is expected to hold children for 30 days. This internment camp is geographically remote and difficult to access.
The Biden administration seeks to deflect the criticism by assuring us their version of childhood detention is thoughtful and humane. The standard of values is now a very low bar, judged by whether something is simply “better” or “worse” than under Trump. Reforms have to go a lot further than merely reversing those of the previous president? The use the term “noncitizen” in place of “alien” when referring to immigrants is paying lip-service to cosmetic changes. Biden’s proposals contain admirable rhetoric about the need to address “root causes” of migration – but recent history shows us how, under xenophobic pressure, noble-minded language can be used to adorn schemes whose ultimate effect is to keep people out, at considerable human cost.
Trump’s anti-immigrant policies were built upon foundations laid down by previous presidents. From the 1990s onwards, there was an increasing effort to criminalise unwanted migration and accelerate border security measures. In 2014, under Obama’s presidency – in which Biden served as vice president – about half of all federal arrests were immigration-related.