A Big New Idea to End the Border Crisis

Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar reports back from her visit to an El Paso facility housing unaccompanied migrant children.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images


Earlier this week Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware led a congressional delegation to a Texas immigration detention facility housing children who arrived unaccompanied at the border. Also on the trip was Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas, who joins Ryan Grim to talk about the present and future of U.S. immigration policy.

[Introduction music.]

Ryan Grim: I’m Ryan Grim. Welcome to Deconstructed.

When Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents at the southern border hit the radar of the national media in 2018, what followed was one of the more embarrassing and revealing press blunders in recent memory. Some national news outlets illustrated their coverage of Trump’s border policy with harrowing photos of children in cages, wallowing in deplorable conditions. The photos sparked outrage around the world, yet before too long people started to point out an inconvenient fact: Some of the images were of children caged during the Obama years, swept up in a wave of border crossings by unaccompanied minors in 2014. Those photos, which had long been public, had produced little in the way of outrage back then.

Now, deliberately separating children from their parents as Trump did, for the explicit purpose of terrorizing them and discouraging further immigration, is a crime under international law. But it is also horrifying that our immigration policy led to children being kept in cages in 2014 and in plenty of other years. And while it’s true that prior to Trump children who wound up detained alone came here unaccompanied — already separated from their parents — in most cases that separation wasn’t exactly voluntary. It was forced on them by economic desperation and the violence sewed by political instability, corruption, and climate collapse.

The media’s photo mishap, and the reaction to it, suggested that Democrats were concerned less with the plight of migrants than with which president was responsible for it.

I feel like I have a bit of credibility on this question. Because in June 2014, along with my HuffPost colleague Jen Bendery, I was the first national reporter to document those kids in cages. I had been chasing the story when a reporter for Breitbart Texas, Brandon Darby, beat us to it and posted those harrowing photos. I reached out and asked if we could republish them on our site. He agreed, we authenticated them, and made it our top story, back when the Huffington Post’s top story would drive the news cycle.

I wasn’t excited about promoting anything from Breitbart — though Breitbart Texas is a bit of a different beast and has done some genuinely decent border coverage. Either way, it was too important to let that get in the way, and it didn’t matter to me as a journalist that Obama was at the helm. It was still a humanitarian catastrophe.

The one upside of all the outrage at Trump, who did indeed take the evil to a new level, is that progressives and Democrats now understand the necessity of dealing with this situation. It’s too shameful to ignore any longer. But to think of it as simply a temporary crisis is wrong. Northward migration from Central America is normal — it’s here to stay — and as the climate continues to collapse, it will only increase. Our immigration policy will have to grapple with that reality.

And that means we have to think completely differently about what our immigration, refugee, and asylum system should look like at the border. We have to think much more expansively about our TPS program, which stands for temporary protected status. TPS gives migrants broader protections if they’re coming from countries where it’s generally too dangerous to return.

We have to ask a very basic question: Why are cops involved in the process of caring for detained children in the first place? What possible justification could there be for that arrangement? So far, Joe Biden has barely scratched the surface of these questions.

Last week, our episode laid out the parallels between the emigration from Ireland during the potato famine in the 1840s and the emigration from Central America now. If you haven’t yet, I’d encourage you to go back and listen to that episode as the background for this one. We had planned on including an interview with Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, who represents the border city of El Paso, Texas, but she had to cancel last minute in order to tour a new facility being set up to house unaccompanied minors while they’re being processed.

If you’ve been following the border story at all, you’ve no doubt heard again and again that Joe Biden’s softer tone on immigration is the reason that so many people went across into the U.S. these days. It’s a point we talked about on the show last week with John Washington and José Luis Sanz, and it’s a point that representative Escobar tackled in a press conference in Texas on Monday.

Rep. Veronica Escobar: For four weeks the national media have been focused on: “Did Joe Biden being a nice guy cause this?” Just a week or two ago we had 18 senators parachute into a border community in South Texas. I urged the media to ask them: What have they done to bring forward solutions?

On Tuesday, she was able to join us to talk about the current situation, and what needs to be done.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: Congresswoman Escobar, welcome to Deconstructed.

VE: I’m so happy to be joining.

RG: You toured the central facility this morning. What did you see there compared to what you had seen before?

VE: You know, I’ll tell you. I’ve spent a lot of time inside those facilities throughout 2019 and I’ve started going in pretty frequently as soon as it became safer under Covid regulations, when I got vaccinated, etc.

I think this is a very important thing to remind the American public about: In 2019, we saw conditions that, from my perspective, were human rights abuses. Children who were wearing the same clothes that they traveled thousands of miles in, they were wearing them throughout their stay in our processing centers. They didn’t have access to toothbrushes, didn’t have access to showers, didn’t have access to hot meals. Some of them were being held outdoors in triple-digit temperatures, in the hot Southwest El Paso sun. The same thing happened during the winter months, being held outdoors or in insufficient facilities.

So while it is absolutely never appropriate to hold a child in confined buildings, I think it is important for the context that our supplemental funding did improve conditions somewhat. So kids now have access to hot meals, to more thorough medical screenings, so no longer do you just smell humanity when you walk into those facilities. It really was inhumane. And so the conditions are better. They’re being held in shelters for shorter periods of time.

RG: Mhmm.

VE: The Trump administration put up all sorts of obstacles, trying to prevent families from being reunited. The Biden administration is approaching this in the opposite way, doing everything possible to quickly and safely get families who are here in the U.S. reunited.

When I visited shelters in 2019, I spoke to kids who had been in those shelters for six months, nine months; I even met kids who had been there for a year. Yesterday, as I toured some of the shelters, kids had been there two weeks, the managers of the facility said their average stay before they can get them reunited with their families is about 35 days. So there’s progress. Is it still unacceptable? It is. But there’s progress.

RG: Kids aren’t supposed to be in there for longer than 72 hours. Do the people that run these facilities try to hit that target? And what’s the consequences if they don’t?

VE: Here’s what happens today: A Border Patrol agent picks up a child or a group of children and they take them to what’s called the Central Processing Center. At the Central Processing Center, kids are still under Border Patrol custody. They’re put in what are called pods, in large rooms. They are given fresh clothes, fresh food, shower, toiletries, etc, all those improvements that we talked about.

But that’s where they’re not supposed to be held for more than 72 hours, because those are just not great conditions for children. What is supposed to happen is there supposed to be very quickly processed; in other words, an assessment made about whether they have a criminal history, and whether they have a sponsor in the country. If they don’t have a criminal history, and if they have a sponsor in the country, they’re supposed to very quickly be moved into HHS custody, and they’re supposed to go to a shelter. And a shelter is a much better situation for kids. They have their own bed, their own bathroom, access to mental health care, primary health care caseworkers who are working to quickly reunite kids with their family or their sponsor. But what’s happening now is because the Trump administration essentially ignored the increase in numbers that began in September, and because of Covid, and they were basically telling shelters that they should only operate at 50 percent capacity or in some cases, 25 percent capacity, shelters, the licensed facilities that kids should be in while they wait for their family, folks were laid off, and the bed space was kind of shut down. And instead of finding other shelters in order to ramp up and still follow CDC guidelines, the Trump administration just did nothing. And so month after month after month, as the numbers have been increasing, the shelter space capacity has not grown to meet the need, because there was a four-month lag.

And so the Biden administration is doing everything it can to build what are called influx facilities: those facilities that folks see on their TV when they watch the news, the big white tents that are HHS facilities, so they’re better than CBP facilities, because at least in HHS influx shelters, you have HHS personnel, and caseworkers, mental health care workers, and they’re not being detained by someone with a gun in a badge, who is a law enforcement agent trained for completely different functions.

So they’re doing the Biden administration is doing the best they can with what they inherited from the Trump administration and with the increase in kids. My view is, I don’t think kids should be in CBP custody at all, but that would mean a complete re-envisioning of the system.

RG: What would a reformed system look like? Comprehensively reformed?

VE: I think that first and foremost, we have to acknowledge that there have been complete domestic policy and foreign policy failures on migration issues in our hemisphere. There has not been any sort of strategic, concerted effort to bring together all of the leaders of this hemisphere to think through migration as it’s been happening over the last decade.

We have got to reengage from a very smart foreign policy strategy, engage everyone in the Western Hemisphere, but we also should re-envision the way that we address migration at our front door. I don’t believe that children and families should be in CBP custody. CBP and Border Patrol have the ability to do very quick background checks, even quick fingerprint checks to determine whether or not a child or family members are national security threats. The vast majority of them pose no national security threats.

RG: Right.

VE: And so why are we as a country then apprehending and putting them into custody in criminal-like conditions and warehousing? I believe they should very quickly be moved to HHS custody. And once in HHS custody, I believe that they should very rapidly have access to counsel. And the Migration Policy Institute, under Doris Meissner, had this interesting proposal — I don’t agree with all of it — but the proposal from MPI was: Have asylum hearing officers basically adjudicate those cases. I think that that is actually a smart strategy, but what I would add would be the legal component. Every family, every child, I think, should have access to counsel, as their case, their asylum hearing is adjudicated, and they should have the right to appeal to a judge.

And I think if they decide to appeal, then they should be released on alternatives to detention. And I think this would shrink the number of people in CBP custody. Border Patrol could get back to performing their law enforcement functions, instead of the mission creep, which has happened now, you know, where they are basically holding families and kids, while they are untrained to do that, and don’t have the resources or the facilities for it.

At the same time, Ryan, we have to acknowledge that over decades, as we have limited access to legal migration, we have essentially fuelled illegal immigration, and we have fueled those opportunities for human traffickers. So if we want to limit undocumented immigration, and if we want to lessen the power of the criminal organizations that traffic in these vulnerable souls, then we need to open up legal pathways for people. That means considering TPS, for example, for those families who are fleeing the climate catastrophes in their region. That means opening up refugee status for family reunification. That includes families who have been here without status, but who have been contributing to agriculture, construction, hospitality, etc. You know, we have benefited as a country, from their labor, from their work, from their commitment.

So it is a far more holistic approach, I think. It’s obviously an ambitious approach, but it would completely re-envision the way that we approach the situation, especially at our front door.

RG: Do you think CBP would resist that approach? They claim to not want to be in the business that they’re currently in. But do you think that’s true? Do you think some part of them has come to cherish this role they’re playing?

VE: You know, I will tell you, I think that, yes. [Laughs.] To answer your question, I do think they would resist this, because in touring the Central Processing Center today with some of my House colleagues and with one of our U.S. senators, I mentioned that and I mentioned it in front of a group of Border Patrol agents. And one of them, as I was walking out, approached me and he expressed concern about it,

RG: How so? What was his concern? What was his objection?

VE: His view was: Then how are we going to investigate, basically, fraud cases? And I said, “I think there’s a way to do it.” But I think, right now, what’s happening is the reverse of what should be happening. We are keeping children and families in what feels like criminal custody. And the vast majority of them, their one violation of the law is a civil violation. And if they want to request asylum, or seek asylum, we are really limiting their ability to do it. And so let’s do the reverse. Let’s put them in HHS custody, so that we get them out of your custody, so that you can do your job.

And I told him: “Surely you don’t like the mission creep that’s been happening. I mean, you have had to care for children.” And I will tell you, Ryan, I’ve had agents complain to me for years about that.

RG: What do you think that divide is among the CBP itself, within the agents, and also the difference between the leadership and the agents on this question?

VE: In my experience, so many of these agents are really hard-working, dedicated law enforcement men and women. And they want to be able to do their job, and they believe in their job.

And I know a lot of these folks. I mean, obviously, not every single Border Patrol agent. But with some of the agents of my generation, I went to school with them, or college with them, or high school with them, have gone to church with them. Border Patrol agents, and federal law enforcement, is inherent in border life. Our community sees a lot of these jobs. And I have met many of these agents, especially in my role as a member of Congress over the years. And the vast majority of them, I would tell you, are very good hearted, just want to do their job. And they hang their hat on the fact that they’ve been trained to do a job and they just want to do the job that they were trained to do.

There are, I think, some very corrosive toxic people within the Border Patrol as well.

RG: I mean, has the leadership turned over, in the sense that they recognize that they actually have to be subservient to the new civilian government? Or are you getting the sense that they feel like they’re kind of still out on this border post, and they don’t answer to anybody but themselves?

VE: I’ll tell you that the minority that is, to me, very dangerous — and I couldn’t tell you the breakdown. I think the agents that I’ve talked to, who are good folks, I don’t know what percentage they make up within the agency.

But the really dangerous component in the agency, I have long suspected, collaborate with the border militia, collaborate with people who want to film vulnerable souls who come to our custody. I believe that there is a component that wants to obstruct President Biden’s efforts and Secretary Mayorkas’ efforts, and would love to see a more compassionate approach fail, and completely embraced and celebrated the cruelty of the Trump administration and their approach.

And it’s those sick forces that I am very worried about. I have also heard from people in Washington, who would know this, that there are a number of QAnon followers within Border Patrol, and I find that deeply threatening as well,

RG: How high up have you heard it goes?

VE: You know, I’m still asking questions. So I don’t know how high up it goes. But I think that there needs to be a deep cultural change. There needs to be a rooting out of people who were instrumental in coming up with policies that were intended to be cruel.

And I think we had some of those forces here in El Paso. There have since been leadership changes. But unfortunately, what happens is people get transferred, and they get promoted, and they move on, and there’s no accountability. Ugh, it is very, very difficult to have accountability. And you know, as I’ve told members of the community, that is not good for the good agents, the people who just want to do their job, the people who believe in their work; same with local law enforcement. We should create deep-rooted accountability, because it roots out those who should not have a gun or a badge, and it uplifts those who are doing their best to do good work.

RG: So are you considering legislation that would kind of rewrite the way that this is done? Is there anybody in the House or Senate who is fundamentally thinking about this, beyond slogans?

VE: I have a bill, a very kind of fundamental DHS reform bill. It does not reform the system in the way that I’ve described it to you. That would take buy-in from committee chairs. And I have already reached out to the chairs of the committees that have jurisdiction over this, and have told them that as soon as we get back to D.C., I would like to sit with them and lay this out.

I really do feel that this is a moment of reckoning. And it is a moment of reckoning where we should recognize our colossal failure in the past, but the opportunity in the future.

RG: During the Trump administration, there were a lot of calls from Democrats and from activists saying, “This is not just a failure, but this is something that needs to be prosecuted. There’s so much cruelty and negligence going on.”

So kind of two parts: One, is there still talk about potentially prosecuting people in the past for what was done? And how long would you give the Biden administration or the DHS leadership or the CBP leadership to improve this situation before similar calls were made this time around?

VE: So to the accountability and prosecution question, I think Stephen Miller should be behind bars. I think he committed heinous human rights violations, and I think that those around him who helped plot this out should be held accountable as well. That is going to be very difficult, but it kills me that these people could potentially walk away — and even potentially rebuild their reputations. I mean, I find them to be just among the most reprehensible, abhorrent people that our generation could have ever produced.

To your second question, I am in good, frequent communication with the Biden administration on what’s happening. And as long as I continue to see progress and movement in the right direction, and input from folks on the ground, including advocates and attorneys who shoulder the consequences of horrific policies right alongside their clients, and the migrants who they’re advocating for, as long as the administration is moving in the right direction, I will keep working with them and will keep providing them with other ideas for reform and for forward movement. But, if at any point, I feel like we are sliding backward or there’s not absolutely every resource and effort being put toward a more humane and compassionate system that does justice to our values, I will be among the Biden administration’s loudest critics.

RG: Well, Congresswoman Escobar, thanks so much for joining me.

VE: Thank you.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: That was Congresswoman Veronica Escobar. In that same press conference that we played a clip from at the top of the show, she was asked by a reporter if she’ll be inviting president Biden down to visit the border anytime soon.

Reporter: Will you guys plan to ask the president or the vice president to come to the border themselves now?

VE: I have. I have.

RG: If that happens, I’m sure we’ll be discussing it right here.

[Credits music.]

RG: That’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/give — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!

See you next week.

Join The Conversation