WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s administration has tried for weeks to keep the public from seeing images like those that emerged Monday showing immigrant children in U.S. custody at the border sleeping on mats under foil blankets, separated in groups by plastic partitions.
Administration officials have steadfastly refused to call the detention of more than 15,000 children in U.S. custody, or the conditions they’re living under, a crisis. But they have stymied most efforts by outsiders to decide for themselves.
Officials barred nonprofit lawyers who conduct oversight from entering a Border Patrol tent where thousands of children and teenagers are detained. And federal agencies have refused or ignored dozens of requests from the media for access to detention sites. Such access was granted several times by the administration of President Donald Trump, whose restrictive immigration approach Biden vowed to reverse.
The new president faces growing criticism for the apparent secrecy at the border, including from fellow Democrats.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Monday “the administration has a commitment to transparency to make sure that the news media gets the chance to report on every aspect of what’s happening at the border.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki added that the White House was working with homeland security officials and the Health and Human Services Department to “finalize details” and that she hoped to have an update in the “coming days.”
Axios on Monday first published a series of photos taken inside the largest Border Patrol detention center, a sprawling tent facility in the South Texas city of Donna. The photos were released by Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat from the border city of Laredo.
Cuellar said he released the photos in part because the administration has refused media access to the Donna tent. He said he also wanted to draw attention to the extreme challenges that border agents face in watching so many children, sometimes for a week or longer despite the Border Patrol’s three-day limit on detaining minors.
“We ought to take care of those kids like they’re our own kids,” Cuellar said.
Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the U.S. should allow media access to border facilities while respecting the privacy of immigrants detained inside. He noted the risk of sharing without permission images of children who have already faced trauma.
“We ought to be aware of these conditions,” Saenz said. “People have to see them so that they can assess the inhumanity and hopefully embark on more humane policies.”
The White House has prided itself on its methodical rollout of policy during its first 50-plus days but West Wing aides privately acknowledge they were caught off guard by the surge of migrants at the border and the resulting media furor.
The newly published photos released by Cuellar’s office show groups of children crowded together inside the partitions. Some appear to be watching TV while others are lying on mats, some side by side. Children are shown wearing surgical masks but are close to each other.
The Donna facility consists of large interconnected tents.