On the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate, candidates excoriated the Trump administration for its treatment of migrant children. Besides the administration’s notorious family separation policy, the contenders attacked the government over recent reports revealing the conditions in certain Border Patrol holding facilities.
Former Vice President Joe Biden slammed Trump administration lawyers for arguing that the government wasn’t obligated to provide detained migrant children with basic amenities. “The idea that [President Donald Trump is] in court with this Justice Department saying children in cages do not need a bed, do not need a blanket, do not need a toothbrush—that is outrageous and it will stop,” Biden said.
Immigration experts were quick to note that many of the conditions Biden named—for instance, lack of beds and blankets in detention—were in fact prevalent during the Obama administration. “Children were in cages without showers or toothbrushes when you were Veep,” Aura Bogado, a reporter who covers immigration for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, tweeted at Biden.
In the summer of 2014, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children began arriving on the United States border from Central America, fleeing intense violence in what’s become known as the 2014 Central American Migrant Crisis. The Obama administration, unprepared to handle the sudden influx of arrivals, struggled to ensure the children’s basic welfare. That July, Bogado interviewed Mayeli Hernández, a Honduran girl who was apprehended by Border Patrol at age 11. Hernández described the conditions in Customs and Border Protection short-term holding cells as abysmal—and similar to the conditions currently reported under the Trump administration.
“It was really cold there…. We didn’t sleep. We didn’t shower, we didn’t brush our teeth. They don’t give you a bed to sleep on in there,” Hernández explained in a video for the news site Colorlines.
In 2015, a coalition of immigrant advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and the American Immigration Council, filed a lawsuit alleging unacceptable conditions in CBP’s holding facilities in the agency’s Tucson sector. The lawsuit, which is ongoing, alleges that detainees—including families with children—were “deprived of beds, bedding, and sleep; denied adequate food, water, medicine and medical care, and basic sanitation and hygiene items such as soap, sufficient toilet paper, sanitary napkins, diapers, and showers.”
“There was no waste bin in the cell so the trash was piled in the corner of the room. Toilet paper was thrown on the floor. The odor was awful because some kids had diarrhea and the mothers did not have soap to wash their hands after cleaning them or changing their diapers. The cell was cleaned once a day but we still had no way to wash our hands,” one former detainee told the lawsuit’s legal team.
Advocates who tried to raise the alarm about the treatment of migrant children during the Obama administration say that, during Trump’s presidency, the public has paid much more attention to the issue.
“It’s been really interesting watching all the public outrage about this—this has been going on for a long time,” says Jennifer Podkul, the senior director of policy and advocacy for Kids in Need of Defense (a non-profit that seeks to protect unaccompanied children in the U.S. immigration system).
But according to Podkul, there’s a critical distinction between the Obama and the Trump administration’s policies. She says that the number of child arrivals the Obama administration dealt with in 2014 was “genuinely unexpected,” and the conditions could largely be attributed to a truly unprepared border system. “What’s different now is that it’s the [Trump] administration’s policies causing this overcrowding,” Podkul says. Those policies include the choice to arrest sponsors who come forward to care for unaccompanied children if the sponsor is undocumented, which has caused government shelters to run low on space for recently arrived children.
This week, Vice reported on how bureaucratic mismanagement between agencies has significantly contributed to the overcrowded and squalid conditions in CBP holding cells, as children wait in facilities designed for short-term holding for unnecessary—and potentially illegal—lengths of time.
“People are trying to understand: Did Obama do this? Did Obama not do that? What’s different, and what’s not?” Podkul says. “The key thing to understand is that, today, this is a disaster of the Trump administration’s own making.”