During the February 23, 2021 White House press briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the re-opening of a migrant facility for children in Texas that will detain about 700 unaccompanied minors ages 13 to 17. The following is a transcript of her response:
Q And, to that point, why is the Biden administration reopening a temporary facility for migrant children in Texas?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, the policy of this administration —as you all know, but just for others— is not to expel unaccompanied children who arrive at the border. And the process —how it works— is that Customs and Border Control continue to transfer unaccompanied children to the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement. That can take a couple of days. I just want to give this context, as people need to understand the process.
But because of COVID-19 protocols, the —like social distancing requirements— the capacity at existing Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters has been significantly reduced, because of course you can’t have a child in every bed. There needs to be spacing, and we abide by those spacing to protect the kids who are living in those facilities for a short period of time.
And to ensure the health and safety of these kids, HHS took steps to open an emergency facility to add capacity, where these children can be provided the care they need while they are safely—before they are safely placed with families and sponsors.
So it’s a temporary reopening during COVID-19. Our intention is very much to close it, but we want to ensure that we can follow COVID saf- —COVID protocols, as we— as unaccompanied minors come into the United States.
Q But it’s the same facility that was open for a month in the Trump administration. Summer of 2019—that is when Joe Biden said, “Under Trump, there have been horrifying scenes at the border of kids being kept in cages.” And Kamala Harris said, basically, babies in cages is a human rights abuse being committed by the United States government. So how is this any different than that?
MS. PSAKI: We very much feel that way. And these—
Q So if—
MS. PSAKI: These are facilities —let me be— let me be clear here. One, there’s a pandemic going on. I’m sure you’re not suggesting that we have children right next to each other in ways that are not COVID safe, are you?
Q I’m suggesting that Kamala Harris said that this facility—putting people in this facility was a human rights abuse committed by the United States government. And Joe Biden said, “Under Trump, there have been horrifying scenes of border”—“at the border of kids being kept in cages.”
Now it’s not under Trump. It’s under Biden.
MS. PSAKI: This is not kids being kept in cages. This is—
Q But it’s the same facility.
MS. PSAKI: This is kids—this is a facility that was opened that’s going to follow the same standards as other HHS facilities. It is not a replication. Certainly not. That’s—that is never our intention of replicating the immigration policies of the past administration.
But we are in a circumstance where we are not going to expel unaccompanied minors at the border. That would be inhumane. That is not what we are going to do here, as an administration. We need to find places that are safe under COVID protocols for kids to be, where they can have access to education, health and mental services consistent with their best interest. Our goal is for them to then be transferred to families or sponsors.
So this is our effort to ensure that kids are treated —are not close— in close proximity and that we are abiding by the health and safety standards that the government has been set out.
After that exchange, Ed O’Keefe of CBS News asked Psaki about Camilo Montoya-Galvez’s report that 179 unaccompanied minors were being detained in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities for more than three consecutive days. Here is that exchange:
Q I’m —well, I have a follow-ups on immigration—
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q —but I know Kaitlan has been waiting. So—
MS. PSAKI: Oh, sorry. Go ahead, Kaitlan.
Q Go ahead, Kaitlan.
Q I can wait for your immigration follow-up.
Q Well, yeah, just because—picking up on this discussion about the HHS facility versus Customs and Border Protection facilities, there’s a law that says you’re supposed to get kids out of those facilities — a CBP facility—
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q —in three days.
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q But data we obtained said that there were at least 179 kids who had spent more than three days in those kinds of facilities in January, despite internal policy dictating that all minors should get out within three days.
Immigration attorneys —attorneys that work with these kids, advocates— seeing all of this and saying, “This isn’t that much better than what was going on before.” In regards to the HHS—the use of the HHS facilities, they say, “It’s a step backwards.”
So there’s the criticism that was made by candidates Biden and Harris, and then there’s the criticism concerned now of these attorneys who work with and represent these children who say, “This isn’t much different than the Trump administration was doing.”
MS. PSAKI: Well—
Q What say you?
MS. PSAKI: Let me —let me first say that you’re right that kids— there’s about a 72-hour time—timeframe where kids should be transferred from CBP facilities to HHS-sponsored facilities, and that is certainly our objective.
In terms of the specific kids that you mentioned, I would send you to DHS to give you more information on that. But that is not—that is not what we are hoping to achieve. We want these kids to be in facilities where they are getting access to health and medical assistance, to education. As you know, there are a number who have come into the country, and we’re trying to manage that as well and ensure that we are able to transfer them as quickly as possible. Not just to stay in HHS facilities either—to get them into families and sponsored homes, that is our human and moral objective from this administration.
But I would send you to DHS for any more specifics on those kids. It’s a fair question.
Q And I asked you a few weeks ago when you guys announced the outlines of the immigration executive orders: What is the message to people in Central America who are thinking of making this trip? You gave an answer then. I guess I’d ask you: Is the administration—is the U.S. government doing enough to make clear to that part of the world it’s not worth making this kind of a trip?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we can always do more. And I think the challenge here, as you know, is that people are fleeing prosecution. They’re fleeing very difficult economic circumstances and hardship. And there hasn’t been enough time to do enough to impact the circumstances on the ground in a number of these communities.
And obviously, as these unaccompanied kids come to the border, it’s completely heartbreaking. We’re not going to expel these kids. We want to process and get them into facilities as quickly as possible. But certainly, we’re always looking for ways to do more to communicate more effectively and clearly with communities in the region about why this is not the time to come. We need more time to put in place a humane and moral immigration system.
Q So parents should not be sending their kids north right now?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely not. This is not the time to come. We don’t—we have not had the time to put in place an immigration system, an immigration policy. We don’t have the processing we need at the border. Obviously, we’re continuing to struggle with facilities to ensure that we’re abiding by COVID protocols. So this is definitely not the time to come.