U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Tuesday released photos and video of South Texas immigrant processing centers that have become a renewed focus of criticism for continued poor conditions despite President Biden's promises to fix Trump-era problems.
The images appear partly in response to photos released by Rep. Henry Cuellar and published by Axios on Monday showing migrants crammed into "pods" divided only by plastic sheathing. Cueller, a Democrat who represents the border town of Laredo, Texas, said he recently witnessed "terrible conditions for the children" at the Donna Processing Center.
Cuellar said the "pods" were meant to house 260 individuals, but that one of them held more than 400 unaccompanied male minors. He said the children needed to be quickly moved from the facility into the care of the Department of Health and Human Services.
"We ought to take care of those kids like they're our own kids," he said.
Cuellar said one reason he released the photos was because the Biden administration had refused media access to the facility in Donna, Texas.
The controversy comes barely two months into the Biden presidency, amid a surge in migrants coming to the U.S. from Central America that began late last year. The new administration says it sees ending a Trump-era policy of forcing migrants to remain in Mexico while their cases adjudicated as "a moral imperative." The new White House says the Trump administration handed it a crumbling immigration and asylum system.
The images appear to show migrants undergoing processing and general living conditions, such as rows of migrants sleep on mattresses on the ground, covered in silver emergency blankets. Other images show unaccompanied minors and families in line for processing or to receive meals.
In a brief statement accompanying their release, Customs and Border Protection said it "continues to transfer unaccompanied minors to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as quickly and efficiently as possible after they are apprehended on the Southwest Border."
In apparent response to journalists being denied access to the facilities, CPB said that in order "to protect the health and safety of our workforce and those in our care we continue to discourage external visitors in our facilities."
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, appearing on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, blamed COVID-19 for restricting access by the news media. "Let's be clear here, we are in the midst of a pandemic," he said.
Last week, NPR reported that a DHS document indicating that more than 500 unaccompanied migrant children and teens had been held in detention centers for more than 10 days, in violation of a policy that says they should be moved within 72 hours.
Asked about the report, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, speaking on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, defended the administration's efforts to address the problems at facilities and to speed up the processing of minors.
"The rise in children coming to the border has happened so quickly that it has been difficult to move them out of these detention facilities in under three days," said Murphy, who recently returned from a visit to the Southern border.
"Right now, as we speak, they are building new capacity to help house these children and filling new slots in the HHS system," he added.
Murphy said that the Biden administration had "inherited an absolute mess and wreck" of an immigration system from the Trump administration.
Asked about conditions in the facilities, Murphy said they are "better than what we saw in 2019."
"These are not kids in so-called cages. They are not being separated from their family at the border," he said, acknowledging, "But these are facilities that you wouldn't want your child in for more than 10 minutes. They are big rooms. Kids are sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor. They are sort of bunched about six inches to a foot from each other."
Republicans have been quick to blame Biden for the rise in migrants at the border, saying his promise to end Trump-era policies invited a massive influx.
After visiting the border earlier this month, Rep. John Katko, R-NY, the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement that his experience as a federal prosecutor of organized crime taught him "that the cartels know when to exploit the southern border, and they're doing it now masterfully. They're doing it because President Biden rolled back a lot of the orders of the previous administration that were working."