By KEVIN FREKING, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to provide a specific date for when the media will get access to Border Patrol facilities temporarily holding thousands of migrant children seeking to live in the United States, but said Sunday the Biden administration was committed to transparency and “we’re working to get that done as soon as we can.”
More than 16,000 unaccompanied children were in government custody as of Thursday, including about 5,000 in substandard Customs and Border Protection facilities.
Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been calling on the administration to open the facilities to the cameras, asserting that the current policy is designed to keep the public from “fully realizing” what is happening at the border.
Republican officials are also blaming the Biden administration for actions they say are leading more people from Central America to seek entry into the United States. “It’s not a crisis, it’s a complete loss of sovereignty down there,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said.
Graham recently visited the border and said he saw a facility designed to hold 80 children with about 1,000 in it. He called on the administration to turn away every unaccompanied minor after testing them for “human trafficking abuses.”
“If you don’t, we’ll have 150,000 a month by this summer,” Graham said Sunday.
U.S. authorities reported encounters with more than 100,000 migrants on the southern border in February, the highest since a four-month streak in 2019.
Encounters have averaged about 5,000 people per day throughout March, which would be about a 50% increase over February if those figures hold for the entire month.
White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said the surge was cyclical.
“They’re not the result of one administration’s policies or another administration’s policies. They’re the result of, for example, weather disasters in the region. They’re the result of people fleeing poverty and violence,” Bedingfield said. “So we saw spikes in 2014. We saw them in 2019 when the Trump administration had perhaps the cruelest imaginable policies in place, family separation to try to deter people from coming, and they still came.”
The Biden administration continued to emphasize on the Sunday talk shows that the U.S.-Mexico border “remains closed” and that the majority of adults are being turned away. But Psaki said the administration was not going to force children to go back on a treacherous journey.
“They are fleeing challenging economic circumstances, hurricanes, prosecution in some scenarios,’ she said. “It does not mean that they get to stay in the United States. It means their cases are adjudicated and we want to treat them humanely, make sure they are in a safe place while their cases are adjudicated. That’s what we’re talking about here.”
Former President Donald Trump expanded and fortified border walls while championing “zero tolerance” policies that made it more difficult to seek U.S. asylum and led to some immigrant parents being separated from their children.
Under federal law, children arriving at the border without parents should be transferred within three days from U.S. Border Patrol custody to long-term facilities run by U.S. Health and Human Services until they can be released to family members or sponsors.
Psaki said the administration is committed to transparency and providing access to those temporary Border Patrol facilities as soon as it can.
“We are mindful of the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic. We want to keep these kids safe, keep the staff safe,” Psaki said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called on the president to let the media accompany him to a temporary detention facility in Dallas on Monday.
“I again urge you to stop denying reality, confront the consequences of your policies, and allow the media access to these facilities,” Cruz wrote in a letter.
Psaki and Graham spoke on “Fox News Sunday,” while Bedingfield was interviewed on ABC’s “The Week.”
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