U.S. House Rep. Steven Palazzo sent mixed signals on his two Facebook pages this week as he criticized President Joe Biden’s handling of an influx of child migrants seemingly from two conflicting angles.
“Joe Biden has spent $87 million to put illegal immigrants up in hotels, rather than place them in virtually empty detention centers that taxpayers already fund,” the congressman tweeted from his campaign’s Facebook page, “Steven Palazzo,” at 11:15 a.m. on Monday.
On his other Facebook page, “Congressman Steven Palazzo,” Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District representative sent a different message 58 minutes later.
“I’m horrified by what my colleagues witnessed at the border. As a father, the conditions these children are subjected to break my heart,” he wrote on that page at 12:13 a.m., attaching a photo of child migrants in a detention facility. “As a citizen, I’m upset about the vulnerability of our border states. As a Representative, I’m calling on Biden to fix the crisis he created.”
Both posts are misleading. Despite Palazzo’s rhetoric, by the end of March, combined family and unaccompanied child migrant arrivals remained below their high-point during a similar surge in the spring of 2019. Arrivals of solo child migrants, however, rose to record highs.
At that time, however, the Trump administration was ordering immigration agents to separate families that arrived at the border, taking tens of thousands of children, including infants, away from their parents and placing them alone with other minors in the child-detention facilities; ICE placed their parents in private prisons, including ones in Mississippi.
‘It’s Not Like They’re In Dog Kennels’
During the last Trump-era surge, Palazzo offered no criticism of that administration’s handling of immigration issues and defended the tightly packed child-detention camps, which some experts and immigration-rights advocates described as child “concentration camps.”
In a Sept. 27, 2019, telephone townhall with supporters, the Republican congressman claimed that the children were “receiving the best treatment of their lives”—despite reports of widespread sexual abuse in the facilities and the deaths of at least seven immigrant children in the preceding months. Palazzo told constituents that Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents should not have to babysit migrant children by doing things like driving sick kids to hospitals or clinics for treatment.
“It’s not like they’re in dog kennels,” the congressman said during that telephone town hall. In fact, the BBC reported in 2018 that migrants were calling a facility in Ursula, Texas, “La Perrera,” which means dog kennel in Spanish.
In a June 2018 report, the Associated Press described the conditions in a McAllen, Texas, child-detention facility, noting that “hundreds of children (were waiting) in a series of cages created by metal fencing” inside an old warehouse. The Trump administration kept thousands of children in the facilities for months, and in some cases, more than a year—a break with past practices.
Biden Ended Family Separations
After Biden took office, the new president ended the practice of separating children from their families when they arrive together. Still, the new administration continues to place unaccompanied children who arrive in the U.S. in Customs and Border Patrol detention facilities, albeit for shorter periods. Federal courts repeatedly found the Trump administration detained children far longer than legally allowed.
An influx of unattended minors began in earnest during the final months of the Trump administration before Biden’s election. Unaccompanied child arrivals are at an all-time high, even though overall monthly immigrant arrivals still remain below the 2019 high point.
With the family-separation policy gone, the Biden administration is spending $86.9 million to house newly arriving migrants and immigrant families that cannot be deported in hotels while they await immigration court dates.
Though the new administration is not keeping children in the Customs and Border Patrol facilities for months at a time like the Trump administration did, the BBC reported late last month that thousands of children have spent more than the legally allowed 72 hours in a detention facility this year, with government officials blaming COVID-19 restrictions.
Biden said in late March that “no child should be in (CBP facilities) longer than 72 hours” and that the military was opening up thousands of beds at Fort Bliss to accommodate them.
‘A Dark Chapter In American History’
When Biden ended the family-separation policy on his first day in office, U.S. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District, celebrated the change.
“Today, President Biden turned the page on a dark chapter in American history,” Thompson said in Jan. 20 statement on behalf of the committee. “… While we still have much work to do, President Biden demonstrated today that America is once again being led by its longstanding values and priorities. The time to fix our broken immigration system is long overdue, and I look forward to working with President Biden and his Administration towards securing much needed reforms.”
Biden also ended Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which had left many legal migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, stuck waiting indefinitely in Mexico even as they attempted to legally enter the United States.
In an interview on MSNBC in March, the Mississippi Democrat said the U.S. State Department was working with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where many of the unaccompanied child arrivals originate, to “create a process by which young people can make applications in those countries rather than making that dangerous trek through Mexico to try to get to the southern border.”
‘A Repugnant, Morally Indefensible Practice’
The new administration drew fire from some pro-immigrants rights organizations, though, after it announced plans to reopen a 3,200-bed for-profit child detention center in Homestead, Fla., that closed in August 2019 amid reports of sexual abuse and criticisms for inadequate health and safety conditions.
“The detention of immigrant children is a repugnant, morally indefensible practice that must end. Our communities know all too well the human cost of subjecting Black, Brown and Indigenous immigrant children to prisons and away from their families and communities,” Oliver Torres, a senior outreach paralegal for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, said in a Feb. 23 press statement.
“Given the history of appalling abuse at Homestead and the Biden-Harris administration’s own stated values, we are deeply disappointed that the administration is poised to reopen this prison, especially while more humane options are readily available,” he continued. “The Biden administration must end the cruelty of child detention.”
Torres warned that such facilities for migrants “are anything but ‘temporary’” and said that a return “to the failed model of child detention of the pre-Trump era is a missed opportunity to meaningfully reimagine our immigration system, particularly with respect to immigrant children.”
“There are community-based, humane alternatives to detention such as NGOs, nonprofits and community sponsors that are ready to safely care for migrant children from the safety of their homes,” Torres said. “These options are safer and less traumatizing and will end our reliance on profit-driven private detention corporations.”