The image of two illegal immigrant children sleeping on the floor in a chain-link fence “cage” swept the internet last weekend, sparking misdirected anger from activists who blamed President Trump for the conditions — which were actually from 2014, when the photo was taken, under President Obama.
Here is another image: illegal immigrant children set up in comfy dormitories, coloring with “multicultural crayons,” watching their favorite soccer teams from back home on the extensive cable system, even kicking the ball around themselves on a beautiful new soccer field — all paid for by taxpayers.
There’s “Spanish language yoga” for those that want it and trips to go bowling, to visit museums and even to hit up the amusement park, at $49 a ticket, also on taxpayers’ tab. The children chow on three meals a day plus snacks, since federal rules say they must be fed “until they are full.”
Both images are accurate: two distinct snapshots of different parts of the massive U.S. immigration system that handles hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied alien children, or UAC, who have streamed over the border over the past five years, challenging first the Obama administration and now Mr. Trump.
The children initially are kept in stark cells at the border, where they are processed by the agents who catch them. That is what the photos from 2014 show.
The cells were designed for a different era, when nearly all illegal immigrants jumping the border were adults, usually from Mexico and predominantly male, held for a few hours while being processed and quickly sent back. It was so quick that agents would sometimes catch the same person more than once in a night.
Fast-forward to 2013, when the patterns began to change, with the flow shifting from Mexicans to Central Americans, and from men to families traveling together, or even children traveling alone — the UAC. So far this year, about a third of the people nabbed by Border Patrol agents fell into one of those special categories.
Under American law and government policy, they cannot be quickly shunted back across the border. The children can spend up to 72 hours in the Border Patrol facility, which has meant sleeping in a crowded room, with little but a Mylar blanket, in conditions so cold that the migrants call the cells “hielera,” or ice box.
But under rules that have been in place for years, illegal immigrant children traveling as part of families are sent either sent to dorm-style detention facilities run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or are released outright, where they usually disappear into the shadows with the rest of the unauthorized population.
They are supposed to be released within 20 days.
If the children are UAC, meaning they jump the border without their parents or come as a family but become separated after their arrival, release comes much faster — 72 hours at the maximum, according to court-mandated rules.
Then it’s off to a dorm run by social workers contracted by the Health and Human Services Department, which pays for the yoga classes, the multicultural crayons and all the other trappings designed to ease the UAC into a possible life in the U.S.
While the children are in the dorms, a branch of HHS, the Office of Refugee Services, is working to place them with sponsors — usually their parents, who more often than not are in the U.S. illegally.
But the government is increasingly creating unaccompanied children through the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy for people jumping the border. Under that policy, announced in April, Homeland Security is supposed to refer every new illegal immigrant adult for prosecution, and U.S. attorneys are supposed to bring cases against every person practicable.
That means hundreds of parents end up in jails and their children are put into the foster care system as UAC, farmed out to the dorms and, perhaps later, to sponsors in the U.S.
For security analysts, the zero-tolerance policy is an endorsement of the kind of law-and-order approach Mr. Trump promised to bring to immigration enforcement. The effects on those ensnared are no different from those of anyone else who is accused of a crime and sent to prison.
“Opponents of immigration enforcement are trying to portray immigration detention as some kind of cruel and unusual punishment when the purpose of it is to be able to enforce the law and give people their due process,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Opponents, though, spare no epithets in attacking the president.
“To target children this way is racism,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, a black pastor and co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign. “What we’re seeing now, we saw in the days of slavery, where children where separated and lost from their families.”
He and other activists say family separation isn’t just a consequence of zero tolerance but is actually the goal, with Trump officials hoping to scare would-be migrants into forgoing the journey.
The administration says there is a safer avenue: Show up at border crossings and request asylum rather than break into the country between the ports of entry.
Take the migrant caravan that dominated headlines in March and April.
More than 330 migrants who came as part of the caravan showed up at the official entry points, were processed and allowed to make asylum claims, and nearly all of them have been granted initial entry into the U.S. By contrast, 122 tried to jump the border and were arrested. Many of them face criminal charges and jail time.
Exact counts of who falls into which category are difficult to come by. The New York Times reported this year on more than 700 children separated from adults at the border either because of safety concerns or, in a couple of hundred cases, because the adults weren’t even related to the children.
Then nearly 1,500 children are placed with sponsors whom the government was unable to track down last year.
Trump critics said the government “lost” those children.
“If we had lost 1,700 or 1,500 European children or Canadians from that side, there would be a tremendous uproar,” said Mr. Barbar.
During a conference call sponsored by immigrant rights activists on Wednesday, the pastor accused Mr. Trump of racism.
But another speaker on the call contradicted that sentiment, saying the children aren’t lost, but their sponsors were just unable to be contacted at one point when the government reached out to do a check-in.
Still, the criticism appears to have struck a nerve with Mr. Trump, who took to Twitter over the weekend to lament children separated from families. He blamed a “horrible law” he said was responsible and urged Democrats to change it.
His aides said that shouldn’t be read as criticism of the zero-tolerance policy his administration is pursuing, nor should he be blamed for families that are separated.
“This wasn’t a policy that was created under this administration. But unlike previous administrations, we actually enforce the law,” she said. “We actually think the law means something, and we’re enforcing it. But the president wants to see that change because he wants these loopholes closed.”
While the two sides argue over methods and motives, it’s taxpayers who are shelling out to cover the costs.
HHS paid more than $1.4 billion last year to accommodate nearly 41,000 UAC in its shelters. They stayed an average of 41 days, which means taxpayers paid about $670 a day for each child. The cost of holding someone in a federal prison — a comparison some immigration activists make to the UAC situation — is just $85 a day.
The causes of the higher costs for the children become clear from an examination of the contract documents describing UAC dormitories.
The Washington Times submitted open-records requests in 2014 for the documents, when the Obama administration was first grappling with a surge of UAC. The records were provided in March.
The documents described conditions at facilities run by two of the biggest shelter providers, Southwest Key Program Inc. and BCFS Health and Human Services.
Southwest Key touted its provision of “multicultural crayons,” new sets of clothes for each migrant, gym equipment and regular field trips to get away from the dorm — activities including movie nights, swimming and bowling.
BCFS, meanwhile, was effusive in describing the steps it takes to help the illegal immigrant children be prepared for permanent life in the U.S. while making sure they also remain connected to their homes through special foods, celebration of their cultural holidays and that robust cable television package to make sure they don’t miss out on their shows.
“On-site recreation may include: soccer tournaments; movie night; playing games on the Wii; bingo and board games; basketball and volleyball tournaments; and Spanish language yoga. During the summer children engage in water-based activities such as swimming, fishing, and playing in the sprinklers,” BCFS said in the documents.
They can call back home a couple of times a week, they get comprehensive health care, and under government rules, the children are guaranteed three meals a day, plus two snacks.
BCFS didn’t respond to a request for comment. Southwest Key referred questions about its policies back to HHS.
HHS pointed back to a statement from Deputy Health Secretary Eric Hargan, who backed the White House in blaming misguided American policies for enticing UAC and families to try to jump the border.
“Until these laws are fixed, the American taxpayer is paying the bill for costly programs that aggravate the problem and put children in dangerous situations,” Mr. Hargan said.