US releases border center photos following transparency calls

Photos and videos show housing of unaccompanied minors

Migrants in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol wait in temporary processing facilities in Donna, Texas.  (Courtesy Jaime Rodriguez Sr., U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs)
Migrants in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol wait in temporary processing facilities in Donna, Texas. (Courtesy Jaime Rodriguez Sr., U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs)
Posted March 23, 2021 at 4:02pm

Facing mounting lawmaker criticism for a lack of transparency surrounding border facilities housing unaccompanied migrant children, the Biden administration on Tuesday released its first set of photos and videos of the crowded Texas centers.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection also noted it continues to transfer migrant children out of its facilities into the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, responsible for housing unaccompanied minors, as “quickly and efficiently as possible.”

The images come a day after Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, released a series of pictures from inside a CBP facility in Donna, Texas, showing cramped, makeshift conditions amid the growing numbers of unaccompanied children arriving at the border. Cuellar represents a border district that extends from the Rio Grande to San Antonio suburbs.

Cuellar said in an interview the press “absolutely” should be allowed inside: “I think people need to know what’s happening in our backyard at the border.”  

The Biden administration has not granted the media access to the facilities, citing COVID-19 safety protocols.

“In order to protect the health and safety of our workforce and those in our care we continue to discourage external visitors in our facilities; however, CBP is working to balance the need for public transparency and accountability,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday.

Migrants in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol wait in temporary processing facilities in Donna, Texas. (Courtesy Jaime Rodriguez Sr., U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs - Visual Communications Division)

Migrant children have been held in CBP custody for longer than the legally permitted 72 hours because HHS does not yet have the capacity to manage the influx. The administration has scrambled to respond, opening new Texas facilities in Midland and Dallas and mobilizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing Monday that the administration plans to provide press access to the facilities and was finalizing details.

“We remain committed to transparency, and, of course, as I noted last week, we certainly want to make sure that the media has access to these sites,” she said.

(Courtesy Jaime Rodriguez Sr., U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs - Visual Communications Division)

But lawmakers across the political spectrum have criticized that approach, demanding media be permitted to access the border facilities sooner.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, sent a letter to the White House on Monday urging media representatives be allowed to accompany him and a group of Republican senators traveling to the border later this week.

“It is not enough for members of the Senate to see what is happening — the American people must see,” he wrote. “Denying the press the ability to observe, film, and report on the conditions at the border is not openness or transparency — it is hiding the truth from the American people.”

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, part of a bipartisan border delegation last Friday, have made similar calls for more transparency.

(Courtesy Jaime Rodriguez Sr., U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs - Visual Communications Division)

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, in a round of Sunday talk show interviews, defended the administration’s current restrictions but promised greater access when conditions are safer.

“We are dealing with crowded Border Patrol facilities,” he said on CNN. “We are focused on our operations and the needs of the children. And, at the same time, we are working to provide access to those Border Patrol facilities when we can do so in a safe manner.”

Suzanne Monyak contributed to this report.