With news that more unaccompanied minors are being detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), White House press secretary Jen Psaki took several questions about this story on Tuesday morning. Here is a full transcript of that exchange:
Q Thanks. Question on what the influx of young people and just migrants in general to the southern border. Is there any sense —and I ask this question with the pers- — obviously, you’re only two months into the administration, but early on, you and Secretary Mayorkas very much stressed humanity in trying to move away from the last administration.
Do you—does the message need to be tweaked at all? Do you need to say that it’s not just about humanity, but also “You might not get in,” or “You probably aren’t going to be able to stay?”
MS. PSAKI: Well, humanity will always be a value from the President on down. But you are right that we are continuing to work to convey to people in the region that this is not the time to come, that the majority of people who come to the border will be turned away, which is factually accurate.
And what we’re really talking about, in terms of the people who are being let in, are unaccompanied children—that is a policy decision which we made because we felt it was the most humane approach to addressing what are very difficult circumstances in the region. And that means there are more children —kids under the age of 18, of course— coming across the border.
Q At this point, is this a crisis at the border?
MS. PSAKI: Look, I don’t think we need to sit here and put new labels on what we have already conveyed is challenging, what we have conveyed is a top priority for the President, what our policy teams are working on every single day.
They, obviously—there was a trip to the border this weekend. They are working over the course of every day since then on putting in place policies that can help address what we’re seeing and help ensure that we are keeping these kids safe and moving them as quickly as possible from Border Patrol facilities to shelters where they can have access to educational resources, health resources, mental health resources, legal aid, et cetera.
Q On—follow-up on that, Jen. Thanks. There are reports out there that the number of unaccompanied migrants detained at the border has tripled in the last two weeks to 3,200-plus. Is that number accurate?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to confirm numbers from here. Obviously, the Department of Homeland Security and others are—oversee the programs and the engagements that happen at the border.
I will say that there are a couple of reasons. I know Aamer asked about our, kind of, change in policy, but there are a couple of reasons why we think people are coming to the border. Of course, individuals are fleeing countries where individuals and families are—you know, they’re fleeing prosecution, fleeing violence, fleeing economic hardships, and other things.
The region has also experienced two hurricanes in the fall, putting further stress on the conditions in these countries and the circumstances that are facing individuals. And all of this is taking place during a global pandemic that has impacted other countries’ economies, placing undue hardships on its people, just as it did in the United States. So there are also a range of factors that are leading individuals to come to the border.
Q But, Jen, why won’t you confirm that number? That’s a very important number.
MS. PSAKI: I—we’ve been very clear that there is an increase, that there are more children coming across the border than we have facilities for at this point in time. Those numbers are tracked by the Department of Homeland Security, so I’m certainly — I’m just suggesting that you talk to them about specifics.
Q But we’ve talked to them, Jen. They won’t confirm the numbers.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would encourage you to go back to them and ask them again. We’re not going to confirm them from the White House. It’s not our program; it’s the Department of Homeland Security’s —
Q Are you encouraging the Department—is the White House encouraging the Department to release those numbers then, in the spirit of transparency that the Secretary promised here at this podium?
MS. PSAKI: We certainly encourage transparency, but what I also think is important is to talk about what the root causes are here and what we’re doing from a policy standpoint to try to address the challenges that we’re facing and that these kids are facing as they come across the border.
Q And on COVID relief, do —should we expect to see the President travel to— perhaps after he signs this bill —to highlight the benefits of— to the American—
MS. PSAKI: After the American Rescue Plan is signed?
Q Yes. Yes.
MS. PSAKI: We certainly recognize that we can’t just sign a bill again. We’re not taking anything for granted. We’re getting across the finish line, but —that we will need to do some work and use our best voices— including the President, the Vice President, and others—to communicate to the American people the benefits of this package; how they can benefit from the package; how they can have access to checks—part of the reason I wanted to do that at the top; how it will help schools reopen.
And so I think you can certainly expect the President to be doing some travel, and we’ll have more details on that in the coming days. Absolutely.
Q Thanks, Jen. You talked about the need of getting these 3,000 or so —potentially— children out of the Border Patrol facilities and into HHS facilities that are meant to house children. How quickly can that be done, and what is being done right now to make sure it happens?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Let me walk you through a little bit of what the considerations are and what our team is working on now.
So, first, the reason why these kids are being let in —I’ve talked about that a bit— but the majority of people come to the border are still turned away or expelled under Title 42 — so families, adults, et cetera. We’re talking about children; I’m just level-setting here.
When children are apprehended at the border, they are initially processed, as you’ve noted, through Customs and Border Patrol facilities, where they are held until they can be sent to HHS shelters where the children have access to education services, medical and mental health services.
We’ve talked about this a little bit, but just to reiterate the reason why: One of the challenges we’ve had is that COVID-19, the pandemic, had initially severely limited the amount of children that could be taken into HHS facilities and the pace at which that could happen.
So one of our focuses is on working on seeing how we can address that. That includes looking at additional facilities. It includes —there were some CDC guidelines that was— that were released on Friday, and those guidelines for HHS facilities will allow capacities to be returned to pre-COVID numbers, all while taking other steps like increased ventilation, additional masking, and other member—measures to continue to keep these children safe.
So one of the things we’re doing is implementing—working to implement these recommendations so that we can ensure there are more kids who can be safely in these facilities. We are also, as I noted, working to expedite—we’re looking at additional facilities where we can safely house children and ensure they have access to all of the resources that I noted.
And finally, we’re also looking for ways that we can expedite the way that we vet and process families and sponsor host families where these kids can go. Because, of course, once they go from CBP facilities, which we are working to expedite that—we don’t want them to be in the CBP facilities. We want them to be in shelters as quickly as possible. And then ultimately, we want them to be in families and homes where their applications can be — can be processed. But we are looking to expedite the way that we consider—the way that we vet families and sponsor homes as well.
Q And last week, you weren’t ready to confirm that new facilities might be brought online, including perhaps Fort Lee in Virginia or Homestead, Florida. Can you give us any new details about how many new facilities might be repurposed and how quickly?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a good question. I don’t have anything to confirm for you in terms of new facilities. We are looking at facilities; a lot of consideration is underway. And certainly, part of the reason is we’re—we want to have more kids able to transfer from CBP facilities to HHS facilities. So the CDC guidelines helped us ensure there are more kids able to have safely in a lot of these facilities. But also, we’re looking at facilities, but no decisions have been made at this point.
Q And can you tell us anything about any diplomatic efforts that are taking place between the Biden administration and these Central American countries to find ways to deter some of these children from coming to the border?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a great question, and it’s a key part of our strategy. I’ve actually asked Roberta Jacobson if she could come join us in the briefing room. So we hope to do that sooner rather than later because those are great questions that, I think, she would be an excellent person to address.
Q But in the meantime, no information about any conversations that are taking place between the U.S. and the—
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — Honduras government, or—
MS. PSAKI: Well, all I was conveying is a commitment to get you an even —an expert—
MS. PSAKI: —that can— that is involved in these discussions who can help answer your questions.
But —and I also conveyed that it is a key priority for us and that there are conversations going on at a number of levels— obviously through our National Security team, through the State Department—about the importance of conveying clearly this is not the time to come; working with countries on how we can address the root causes.
As you know but everyone may not know, one of the key proposals in the President’s immigration bill is additional funding to address the root causes, and that’s something we’re certainly communicating about.
So—but I think what I heard from you is specific questions about engagements. A lot of those would be read out from the State Department, but I’ve invited Roberta to come, and we’ll look forward to having her here soon.
To read why Psaki said last week, click here.