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The Evolution of “Kids in Cages”

Overcrowding of families at Border Patrol’s McAllen, Texas, station June 10, 2019: NBC News

Kids in cages” was a catchall phrase for the Trump Administration’s treatment of migrant children at the southern border. The phrase began trending this month on social media regarding the Biden Administration’s response to an influx of migrant children in Carrizo Spring, Texas. Trump threw the phrase at the Obama Administration in 2018.

But how have the last three administrations actually treated Central American migrants, particularly minors? And how have holding policies affected immigration trends? What does the future look like for unaccompanied minors?

In the spring of 2014, under the Obama Administration, Central Americans crossed the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in unprecedented numbers. Many of their lives were poisoned by poverty, unemployment, and violence. Additionally, coyotes had accurately assured families that their children would be unlikely to face long detention if captured, The Washington Post reports.

By May 2014, around 4,000 migrants were entering Texas, a hub of the border crisis, each day, according to The Washington Post. Border patrol agents were overwhelmed and detention cells overfilled. This was especially true in McAllen, Texas, the site of one of a large immigrant detention center.

Overcrowding was so extreme that Border Patrol agents began placing migrants into the areas outside the center akin to outdoor garages. Babies, children, and mothers had no choice but to sit on concrete floors, fed only sandwiches and Kool-Aid.

The Obama Administration responded to the large influx of migrants by building a partitioned facility in a vacant warehouse a few blocks from McAllen. This clean, air-conditioned space improved on the outdoor garages. This new “Central Processing Center” (CPC) was divided by chain-linked fence into sections by gender and family size, a standard practice at holding facilities.

While the chain-linked fence allowed for ventilation, it also led the processing center to have a disturbing, prison-like appearance. Migrants soon labeled CPC “la perrera”- the dog kennel, according to The Washington Post. Controversy over this holding erupted under the Obama Administration, only worsening under Trump’s cruel “zero-tolerance policy.”

In May 2018, the Trump Administration began the “intentional separation of children from their parents by the government,” The Washington Post writes. As Human Rights Watch explains, children were forced into processing centers, like the one Obama constructed in McAllen, while their parents were criminally prosecuted.

The divided warehouse constructed under Obama used for all migrants was now stuffed with unaccompanied minors under Trump. In spring 2018, the Trump Administration invited journalists into CPC, hoping to dispel myths about poor conditions at the facility. Instead, guests were appalled as thousands of children in unsanitary conditions stared at them. Amidst intense outcry, after six weeks, Trump ended his zero-tolerance policy.

Central American smugglers were quick to take advantage of the lessened immigration restrictions, assuring hopeful migrants that a child was a ticket to successfully crossing the border. Migration surged, and in May 2019, over 144,000 migrants were taken into custody, filling the CPC to around twice its capacity, according to The Washington Post.

The policy of providing asylum to unaccompanied minors is outlined in US law. However, with the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020, the Trump Administration, relying on a 1944 public health status, closed the southern border to all immigrants, including children.

He deemed Central American migration “nonessential travel,” and its end “necessary to limit the spread of the coronavirus,” the Los Angeles Times reports. Since March 2020, authorities have subjugated over 80% of immigrants to Title 42, leading to 530,000 expulsions.

In November 2020, CBS News reports, after over 15,000 unaccompanied children were expelled from the southern border, a federal judge blocked the process. Shortly after Biden’s inauguration, a federal appeals court lifted the judge’s orders. The Biden Administration resisted this change, offering protections to unaccompanied minors that the Trump Administration did not under Title 42.

Under Trump, almost all migrants, including children, were turned away. The Biden Administration has continued expelling adults and families, but is admitting most migrant children, USA Today explains. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said “we are using it as a Title 42 authority was intended, and not as a bludgeoning tool under immigration law that the prior president used.”

According to CBS News, over 16,500 migrant children were in federal custody as of late March. In response to this massive arrival of unaccompanied migrant children, the US government is preparing to open nine emergency housing facilities by late April that should host over 16,000 migrant children.

On Wednesday, March 29, the Biden Administration began the response by installing emergency housing for around 500 children near Carrizo Springs, Texas, CBS News writes. Other housing facilities include convention centers in Dallas and San Diego, an arena in San Antonio, and what once was a camp for oil workers in Midland, Texas.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has never opened emergency sites just for children before, Jennifer Nagda, policy director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, told CBS News. She explained that these facilities get kids out of Customs’ and Border Protection’s authority and into spaces with child welfare professions.

The Biden Administration is also hoping to address the root causes of migration from Central America, bringing opportunities to people from these regions such as employment so they do not have to rely on illegal immigration. Kamala Harris will be overseeing this migration, working closely with the Mexican government.

Central American migrants have had to endure incredible hardship at the border under the last three administrations, from despicable holding conditions to family separation to immediate rejection by Border Patrol. These struggles may weigh especially heavily on children, who would more likely struggle to understand the drastic act of fleeing their home country. However, the Biden Administration’s promise to construct housing and accept unaccompanied minors is a step forward after a decade of immigration policy lenient to no one.


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