Immigrant Rights Advocates Urge Biden to Stop Detaining Children

There are now over 15,000 unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. custody as the number of people seeking asylum at the southern border shows no sign of slowing down. The Biden administration has sharpened its rhetoric in recent weeks, insisting that the “border is closed” and pushing Mexico and Guatemala to stem the flow of migrants. The Biden administration has also maintained one of the most controversial Trump policies, which allows the U.S. to deny almost all asylum seekers on public health grounds. “What is happening at the southern border is shameful,” says Luz Lopez, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center focused on immigration. “We as a country should remain vigilant and hold any administration accountable, regardless of political party, with respect to our treatment of children seeking refuge, who are fleeing countries that are in turmoil, largely because of our geopolitical policies over the past several decades.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Photos released Monday show migrant children crowded into holding areas separated by plastic sheeting at a temporary processing center near the U.S.-Mexico border in Donna, Texas. There is no social distancing in effect as the children huddle on plastic mattresses, covered with foil sheets. The photos were shared by Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar of Texas with the news site Axios. Cuellar said eight pods that were meant to house 260 children were packed beyond capacity, with one pod housing over 400 boys. He said Customs and Border Patrol agents were, quote, “not equipped to care for kids.”

There are now over 15,000 unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. custody as the number of asylum seekers at the southern border shows no sign of slowing down. Over 5,000 of those are being held in Customs and Border Protection jails. Axios reports over 800 children have been jailed for over 10 days — more than a fourfold increase over the past week.

This comes as The Washington Post reports CBP has requested airplanes to transport asylum seekers from the southern border to sites near the Canadian border for processing.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared on multiple news shows over the weekend to say the U.S. border is effectively closed.

DHS SECRETARY ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: The border is closed. We are expelling families. We are expelling single adults. And we’ve made a decision that we will not expel young, vulnerable children.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayorkas says officials are “rebuilding” systems the Trump administration “tore down.” But Republicans have tried to blame the new administration for the emergency with migrant children’s welfare. During an interview Monday with former President Donald Trump, Fox News host Harris Faulkner falsely reported Mayorkas had resigned after less than seven weeks on the job.

HARRIS FAULKNER: The DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has resigned, Mr. President. Your first —

DONALD TRUMP: Well, I’m not surprised. Good. That’s a big victory for our country.

HARRIS FAULKNER: Hold on. Let me — let me stop. Let me stop. Let me listen to my team one more time. Forgive me. Forgive me. That has not happened.

AMY GOODMAN: “That has not happened.”

For more, we’re joined by Luz Lopez, senior supervising attorney with the Immigrant Justice Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. She came to the United States as a 10-year-old refugee with her family from El Salvador, which she writes about in her op-ed for The New York Times headlined “Migrant Children Deserve Better.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Luz. It’s great to have you with us. So, if you can respond to what’s happening on the border, not under President Trump, but under President Biden, and if you can fold in your own experience and history and what needs to be done?

LUZ LOPEZ: Thank you, Amy. Good morning. And to you, as well, Juan. It truly is an honor to be here. And thank you for this space.

So, what is happening at the southern border is shameful. We as a country should remain vigilant and hold any administration accountable, regardless of political party, with respect to our treatment of children seeking refuge, who are fleeing countries that are in turmoil, largely because of our geopolitical policies over the past several decades.

And with respect to how this mirrors our journey, my family’s journey to the United States, it really breaks my heart, Amy, that when we came to the U.S. in 1980, I was accompanied by my parents and my brother. My father had received a death threat. He was a teacher. So was my mother. We were forced to flee El Salvador. The United States was funding a war, was funding the military that was killing thousands of people. And we fled. We left everything we had, everyone we knew, our loved ones, our family, and set for the U.S., where we had family in New York. If we had fled under the conditions that exist now, I very likely would have never had the chance to serve for the United States U.S. Department of Justice. I never would have had the chance to sit here with you to talk about how we can do better. And we must do better for these children and these families.

You know, one of the things that concerns me the most is that while we recognize that the new administration, the Biden administration, has made some positive impact and overtures to ensure that there is a fairer process — for example, they have removed the — they have revoked, I should say, the law that — the memorandum that had required ICE and ORR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which generally processes unaccompanied minors, unaccompanied children who come to the U.S. seeking asylum — there had been this process in place where these two federal agencies shared information. That had a chilling effect on many of the sponsors and family members who were seeking to reunite with these children, because ICE was using this process, this process that should be full of hope and should be humane, as a means to identify and deport people, those sponsors who were seeking to reunite with their family members. So, we do recognize that the Biden administration has made some positive — taken some positive action.

But the fact remains that children continue to come to the U.S. trying to seek refuge and solace and comfort away from the horrible situations that we find in the Northern Triangle — in Guatemala, in El Salvador and in Honduras — and in Mexico, of course. And what we, as a country, and what we would like to hold the Biden administration accountable for are policies that are humane, that are family- and child-centered.

We have the means, Amy, to be more efficient in terms of reuniting families and children at the border with their hosts here in the U.S. The Biden administration themselves acknowledge that 80% of folks or more who come to the border come because there is a relative, there is someone, waiting for that person or that family here in the U.S. So, instead of spending millions and millions of dollars on CBP and ICE temporary shelters, makeshift shelters for children and families, we can actually divert those funds to ensuring a quicker, more efficient process through which we can reunite these families with their sponsors, these children with their sponsors, who are family members, who are trusted people and who are waiting for them here in the U.S.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Luz, I wanted to ask you, in terms of — you mentioned when your family came in 1980, you and your family, but even back then, even in the midst of civil wars in Central America, the United States granted very few Salvadorans and Guatemalans refugee status or asylum from those countries. What are the conditions that you feel warrant the asylum status now for those who are coming across the border, even if there are nominally no conflicts existing in Central America right now?

LUZ LOPEZ: Thank you for the question, Juan.

Well, anyone who is familiar with the present situation in what this country calls the Northern Triangle — in Honduras, Guatemala and in El Salvador — knows that there is rampant crime, corruption. Children, adults are being murdered. There is lawlessness and terror in these countries. And a lot of it goes back to, as I mentioned, these geopolitical games that the United States used to play during the Cold War, which have left these nations without infrastructure and without really any government structure that favors democracy. And as a result, we have children who are fleeing crime, certain death at the hands of gangs and of a corrupt government, or a government that may — you know, governments that may lack the means to protect their own citizens. It is quite lawless.

My family — I still have family in El Salvador. And each day, things get worse, because COVID, of course, has exacerbated the situation. There is a growing desperation. And while we don’t want to play into the narrative that there is this surge, and we don’t want to spread any misinformation, we know that the rate of children, families, of persons who are coming to the U.S. has been steady. It has not suddenly spiked. It has been steady over the past year, not coincidentally because of COVID. And that has exacerbated these conditions in the Northern Triangle, where crime — there is no protection for families, for children. There are very few jobs. The economies in Latin America are collapsing because of what is happening due to the pandemic. And things were bad before.

So, we need to be cognizant that many of the families, the people who are fleeing, are doing so because of past policies that need to be remedied. Yes, we must hold the Biden administration accountable for working with those governments to ensure that folks in these areas are actually safe, that they have access to the vaccine, which, you know, in El Salvador, a country of millions, less than 30,000 people have begun to be vaccinated. So, there are a lot of factors, of human factors, that are driving children and families here. And these are not new factors, as you point out, but what is new is that this country has, in some ways, lost its soul. We are —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Luz, I wanted to ask you —

LUZ LOPEZ: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In terms of the so-called surge that has much been much reported of late, how much of that is actually, from what you can tell, new waves of migrants coming from the Northern Triangle, and how many of those are people who have been shut out over the last several years by the Trump administration and effectively dumped in Mexico right across the border and now think that with the new Biden administration, there will be an opportunity to have their cases reconsidered or their chances reconsidered?

LUZ LOPEZ: That’s a really good question, Juan. I don’t have data that would indicate one way or another whether the number of folks who are coming are primarily folks who stayed in Mexico, who were not permitted to access the asylum process that the U.S. is responsible for ensuring under international and domestic law. We have an asylum process in place that we seem to ignore. So, I don’t have data in terms of who were folks who remained in Mexico through that Trump-era policy where we completely abandoned the asylum process and did not even process the numbers of folks that we needed to. We asked people to stay and await their number, so that they could seek asylum. That was unprecedented. We had never done that.

But we do know that there is not a surge. There is data by the American Immigration Council that shows the numbers have been fairly steady for the past year. And what we are seeing, unfortunately, that worries me, that concerns the communities that serve these children and families, is that we are sort of reverting to some of the Trump-era practices, where we are not pushing for means to efficiently, to quickly unite children and families with their U.S. sponsors that have been waiting for them. As I said —

AMY GOODMAN: Luz Lopez —

LUZ LOPEZ: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but 10 more seconds.

LUZ LOPEZ: I have hope. There are progressive members of Congress that understand, that are willing to work with community organizations to ensure that children are protected and that we remain true to what the values of this country — what we tell the world the values of this country are.

AMY GOODMAN: And as you write in your article, that children should be treated as children. Luz Lopez, thanks so much for being with us, senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

When we come back, we’ll be joined by the award-winning investigative journalist Jean Guerrero, who just wrote a piece, “The MAGA Clowns Making Chaos at the Border Have Ugly Pasts.” Stay with us.