The immigration policy of United States President Joe Biden continued to draw criticism on Monday after a series of pictures emerged of a crowded detention facility housing migrant children.
Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas whose district is on the US-Mexico border, made the pictures public on Monday. The photos show migrant children, who had crossed into the US alone without a parent or guardian, being held in crowded rooms with mattresses on the floor surrounded with clear plastic at a detention facility in Texas.
Photos also showed that each room contained a television screen.
Cuellar told Axios that the children were being held under “terrible conditions” at a makeshift facility in Donna, Texas, made up of tents. He said the facility consists of “pods” that can hold up to 260 people. Cuellar said one particular pod housed 400 boys.
“We have to stop kids and families from making the dangerous trek across Mexico to come to the United States,” Cuellar told Axios. “We have to work with Mexico and Central American countries to have them apply for asylum in their countries.”
The White House sought to dispel the criticism on Monday.
“These photos show what we’ve been long saying, which is that these border patrol facilities are not places made for children,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a news conference on Monday. “They are not places that we want children to be staying for an extended period of time.”
“Our focus now is on solutions,” she said.
When Biden took office two months ago, he vowed to do away with his predecessor’s hardline stance on immigration. He blasted former President Donald Trump’s so-called zero-tolerance policy, which separated migrant families, and he lambasted procedures that included holding children in “cages“.
Biden stopped forcing asylum seekers to wait for their court dates in Mexico and halted the construction of a border wall along the nation’s southern border.
But Biden is now facing mounting criticism over his own handling of a surge of US-bound migrants.
According to data collected by the Pew Research Center, 18,945 migrants were apprehended at the border in January and February, an increase of 168 percent. And 9,297 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the border, a 63 percent increase.
Republican leaders say Biden is to blame for the new wave of migrants who are showing up at the US-Mexico border, creating a crisis situation that threatens the safety of the US.
The Biden administration argues that the US is still expelling asylum seekers back to Mexico under Title 42 – a Trump-era provision that cited the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to allow the swift deportation of migrants.
They also deny that there is a crisis brewing.
“Children presenting at our border, who are fleeing violence, who are fleeing prosecution, who are fleeing terrible situations is not a crisis,” Psaki said on Monday.
“We feel that it is our responsibility to humanely approach this circumstance and make sure they are treated and put in conditions that are safe,” she said.
Biden officials have also continued to call on migrants not to come, saying the US will soon put in place a system that will allow asylum seekers – especially from Central America – to file their claims from their home countries.
The Biden administration has also faced scrutiny over its refusal to allow outside observers or the media into the facilities where it is detaining thousands of immigrant children.
“We certainly want to make sure that the media has access to these sites,” Psaki said.
“We are working with the Department of Health and Human Services and also the Department of Homeland Security to ensure privacy and ensure we are following COVID protocols,” she said.
She added that the Biden administration has put in place communication campaigns that have advertised that the US border is closed for migrants and added that the US government is committed to funding development programmes that would target the root causes of immigration.