Photo of a detention center in Donna, Texas released by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar.
Sen. Chris Murphy talking to reporters about his tour of a detention facility in El Paso, Texas. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy mildly faulted the Biden administration’s care of the growing numbers of child asylum seekers at the southern border Monday, while accusing Republicans of using the issue to distract from successes in fighting COVID-19 and spurring economic growth.

Tensions inherent in the politics and messaging around what is variously described as a full-blown “crisis” or a mere “emergency” were evident as Murphy delivered a carefully calibrated account of his tour Friday of a child detention facility in El Paso, Texas.

“What’s happening on the border is serious,” Murphy said. “It’s a challenge. But my Republican colleagues are trying to make Americans believe that the crisis on the border is more important than the continued health care and economic crisis facing American families.”

Murphy, who toured the Department of Homeland Security detention center in his new role of the chair of the Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, touted the importance of his oversight role, then pledged it would not distract from Connecticut issues.

“It’s a serious situation, and I have a responsibility to help alleviate the conditions for these kids,” Murphy said. “But I’m going to be honest. I’m going to still spend the vast majority of my time working on the crises that matter most to people here in Connecticut. And that’s the jobs crisis and the health care crisis.” 

Murphy said correctly that the surge in apprehensions and encountered at the border began a year ago, when Trump was president. But it is also true that the pace has accelerated since February.

Biden has tried to strike a middle ground between the policies of the Obama and Trump administrations when it comes to the sensitive issue of how to humanely care for unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody without encouraging mass migrations, either in illegal border crossing or demands for asylum under U.S. law.

Under Obama, adult asylum seekers were allowed to care for minor children, a policy that critics said encouraged migrants to come north. The Trump administration separated parents and children in custody, drawing widespread condemnation. It also shut the door to asylum seekers, a stay-in-Mexico policy that contributed to sprawling camps with scant sanitation.

Biden has allowed minors to apply for asylum while their parents remain in Mexico, keeping the children in detention centers that have quickly grown overcrowded, prompting suggestions that the United States was returning to the days of “kids in cages.”

“Any families that show up at the border still get turned right back around,” Murphy said. “But unaccompanied minors are being let in. The conditions are better than 2019. These are not cages. There are now childcare workers and medical professionals. But I still wouldn’t want my child in these detention facilities for more than 30 seconds.”

No reporters were allowed on his tour, something Murphy said he viewed as a mistake. 

“I’ve talked to both the department and the White House over the weekend about making sure that there’s some ability for the press to come in and verify what members of Congress are seeing,” Murphy said.

As he spoke to reporters in Hartford, photos of a different detention facility in a tent at Donna, Texas were released by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat of Texas. They were published first by Axios.

Photo of a detention center in Donna, Texas released by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar.

Murphy, who said he and others on his tour were barred from taking photos that showed the children or Border Patrol agents, said he saw about 100 children to a room.

“There’s so many of them that the mattresses are lined up only a few inches or a few feet from each other,” Murphy said. “They spend four to five days in these detention facilities and they get moved to group homes. And eventually, after a few weeks, they get reunited with family members in the United States where they can make their asylum claim.”

But Murphy did not suggest that Biden has found a Goldilocks solution, one that is just right, neither too soft, nor too harsh. He doubts one exists.

“I don’t think there’s any good answer here,” Murphy said. “If you don’t allow the kids in, then you’re leaving them for dead in northern Mexico. If you allow the kids and the parents in, then you’re perhaps creating a capacity issue that we simply couldn’t deal with at the border. So I think there’s no good choice. It’s just a series of difficult choices.”

Border security, accompanied by alarmist or even racist overtones, has been central to national Republican politics since the moment Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, describing an America under siege from undesirables from the south.

”They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” Trump said. “And some, I assume, are good people.”

Biden has pledged to increase aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the Northern Triangle nations of Central America that are major sources of migrants and asylum seekers in an effort to provide enough economic stability to stem the northern tide.

“Trump ended up spending some money in those countries, but it was stop and start, and wasn’t done very effectively. So, you know, I think I support President Biden’s plan to allocate $4 billion to the Northern Triangle,” Murphy said. “A lot of that money will have to be spent through not-for-profit international organizations, but it’s got to be part of the solution to stabilize the security situation in those countries to prevent migration.”

Chris George, director of a refugee resettlement agency, said the Biden administration needs to involve agencies like his. At left is Sen. Chris Murphy. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Murphy was joined Monday by Chris George, the executive director of IRIS, a refugee resettlement service in Connecticut. 

George said the Biden administration needs to make better use of IRIS and the 200 similar private non-profits around the United States.

“We have been welcoming refugee families from all over the world for decades,” George said. “And once an unaccompanied minor is combined with a family, we can step in and connect them to health care, enroll the kids in school, providing language training and also connect them to legal aid so they can apply for asylum.”

About 85,000 refugees were admitted annually by the Obama administration after a vetting process by the State Department, while the Trump administration cut the number to 15,000.

“We are waiting for the White House to issue a new presidential determination. And Senator Murphy, I hope you can help lean on the White House a little bit to issue a new number of at least 62,000 refugees coming to the United States this year,” George said. “We don’t know what the delay is about.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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