WASHINGTON — President Trump has never been known for making apologies or displaying regret, but when his policy of separating children from their families at the southwestern border arose during his debate with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Thursday, he had a ready deflection for the “kids in cages” accusation.
It was Mr. Biden’s fault.
“They said, ‘Look at these cages; President Trump built them,’” Mr. Trump said. “And then it was determined they were built in 2014. That was him.”
Mr. Trump is correct that the Obama administration expanded the number of border facilities with chain-linked enclosures in 2014, but the journey from their construction to contend with a surge of Central American children crossing the border to Mr. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of thousands of families was not captured by the president’s evasions. Nor is it explained by the “kids in cages” catchphrase often hurled by Mr. Trump’s opponents.
“It is one of the definitive phrases, but I don’t think sloganeering will ever bring you closer to why this disaster happened in the first place,” Cristobal Ramón, a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said of the “kids in cages” catchall. “You have to get beyond slogans.”
The Obama administration separated children from adults at the border only in cases when there was a doubt about the familial relationship between a child and an accompanying adult or if the adult had a serious criminal record.
Mr. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy was a deliberate act of family separation, meant to deter migrants from trying to enter the United States. It directed prosecutors to file criminal charges against everyone who crossed the border without authorization, including parents, who were then separated from their children when they were taken into custody.
That policy was ended amid international outcry, but its repercussions remain. Court documents filed this week showed 545 children still have not been reunited with their parents after the Trump administration resisted sharing information with a court-appointed committee of lawyers and advocacy groups tasked with finding their guardians.
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But as with many of Mr. Trump’s prevarications, there was a nugget of truth to his assertions Thursday night. The holding of migrant children in chain-linked enclosures predated his administration.
Traditionally, migrants who crossed the border initially were held by the Border Patrol in stations designed for the short-term stay of a specific population: single Mexican adults who could be quickly returned to Mexico. In 2014, the demographic at the border shifted dramatically, to Central American families and unaccompanied children who surrendered to agents with the hope of obtaining protection in the United States.
A law designed to protect migrant children, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, prevented the U.S. government from rapidly turning away such families, since they had not traveled from a neighboring country. The families, who fled poverty, torture and persecution, were instead packed into the stations, prompting agents to cram some into adjacent concrete sally ports — essentially large garages — in the sweltering heat.
“I went back to Washington and said you have a humanitarian disaster in front of you,” said Gil Kerlikowske, a former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, recalling his message to the Obama administration after a visit to the facilities in 2014.
The Obama administration then converted a warehouse in McAllen, Texas, into a facility that could hold more than 1,000 detainees. That facility, with chain fencing installed to separate adult men from mothers and children, would later be known as the Central Processing Center.
“They stood up what we thought would be a temporary structure” that would be better for families and children, said Ronald D. Vitiello, former deputy chief of the Border Patrol in the Obama administration and a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Mr. Trump. “In a nontechnical sense, are those cages? I guess you could call them that.”
The design, he said, was to “be open so you can see from one side of the facility to the other to protect people in it.”
But expediency led to cruelty. Mr. Trump claimed on Thursday that the migrants were “so well taken care of,” but in reality, his own policies fueled overcrowding in the holding facilities.
After drawing widespread condemnation from lawmakers in both parties, immigration activists and the United Nations, Mr. Trump signed an executive order in June of 2018 that largely ended the policy of family separation.
But the president’s anti-immigration messaging helped fuel another surge of Central American families seeking refuge at the border in 2019. Smugglers purchased radio spots warning families that there was a brief window to go to the United States before the next crackdown.
After they are processed in a Border Patrol facility, migrant children traveling alone are supposed to be transferred to a shelter managed by the Health and Human Services Department, where many are subsequently released to a relative sponsor.
But Mr. Trump deterred many sponsors from claiming those children by requiring they provide fingerprints and other personal information that some feared would later be used to find and deport them. With spaces limited in those shelters as well as longer-term detention facilities managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the holding cells along the border were once again crammed with children lacking proper hygienic resources and exposed to disease. They were held in the border cells for weeks, even though the government is supposed to transfer them to shelters within 72 hours.
“There was the front-end policy of separating children through zero tolerance,” Mr. Ramón said. “There was the back-end policy of requiring fingerprints to get children out of detention.”
“That’s where you create this backlog of children in facilities that weren’t designed for them,” he added.
The detention facilities are not as relevant now — but not because migration has halted. Instead, through its “Remain in Mexico” policies, the Trump administration has forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait on the other side of the border for court hearings, creating squalid refugee camps in some of Mexico’s more dangerous areas.
The administration has also cited the coronavirus in using a public health emergency rule to rapidly return migrants, including children traveling alone, back to Mexico or their home country.
At the debate on Thursday, Mr. Trump hurled his “They built the cages” accusation at Mr. Biden repeatedly, so often that it was difficult for Mr. Biden to answer. But the former vice president did manage to say that parents had their children “ripped from their arms and separated, and now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents and those kids are alone, nowhere to go, nowhere to go.
“It’s criminal,” Mr. Biden added.
Lee Gelernt, the primary lawyer challenging the family separation policy, said Mr. Trump was trying “to switch the debate” away from a policy that was exclusive to his administration.
“The fact is no other administration, Democrat or Republican, has ever systematically separated children,” Mr. Gelernt said. “The Trump administration’s actions to systematically separate children is unprecedented and what made that much more horrific is that there was no age limit. Even babies and toddlers were separated.”