Washington Post: Opinion: As Biden Mulls Family Detention, Warnings from Inside Grow Louder

Washington Post: Opinion: As Biden Mulls Family Detention, Warnings from Inside Grow Louder

This op-ed features reports by Government Accountability Project’s whistleblower clients, Drs. Scott Allen and Pamela McPherson, and was originally published here.

When news leaked last week that the Biden administration is considering detaining migrant families who cross the border illegally, the reaction was swift and harsh. Democrats and immigration advocates denounced the idea as “cruel,” “heartbreaking” and even “Trump 2.0,” a reference to use of the widely criticized policy under President Donald Trump.

It turns out that officials inside President Biden’s government are sounding their own warnings, too.

Some officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement have repeatedly expressed resistance in internal conversations to enforcing revived family detentions, two people familiar with the talks told me. They fear a potential logistical and public relations nightmare that won’t substantially improve management of the situation, the sources said.

“They don’t want to get into the business of detaining children or families,” one of those sources told me. ICE officials have conveyed this “consistently” to Department of Homeland Security and White House officials, the source said, due to concerns about “safety, cost and harm.”

As the New York Times reported, this is only one of many policies the administration is mulling as it braces for a spike in migrant arrivals when a covid-19 public health restriction on most asylum seeking ends in May. But reinstatement of family detentions would cross a Rubicon of sorts, bringing back a version of a policy that Biden himself ended after decrying it as inhumane.

Since ending the detention policy, the administration has been releasing migrant families into the United States, where they are tracked with various technologies as they await asylum hearings. Under this policy, ICE has receded from public view as the supercharged symbol of cruelty that it was under Trump. The administration is also considering simply continuing that approach, one official said.

If, however, the administration decides to reinstate family detentions, even in less draconian form, that would put ICE “right in the crosshairs of the political debate again,” one of the sources familiar with discussions told me. A DHS spokesperson said that “no decisions have been made.”

In fairness, even if Biden does revive family detentions, his overall approach would differ from Trump’s. Biden is allowing 30,000 migrants to enter the United States legally each month from certain countries under a new parole program, part of a shift toward creating more legal channels for those who apply from abroad (which Trump didn’t do) while restricting asylum seeking for those who arrive at the border.

In principle, such a shift in emphasis has understandable goals. It could disempower smuggling operations and disincentivize migrants from making the trek to the border, which is dangerous to them and strains U.S. processing capacities, while opening up new channels to seek refuge.

Some administration officials are defending the deliberations on family detentions, noting that if Biden does reinstate them, they would be limited to a short number of days. One possibility, they noted, would be to use a type of processing center that provides access to health care, legal services and facilities for kids, modeled on approaches used by nongovernmental organizations.

“There’s no scenario under which any policy would look anything like it did under the previous administration,” one of the officials who defended the deliberations told me.

President Barack Obama also expanded family detentions, and a study conducted during both the Obama and Trump administrations found that they carry a “high risk of harm” to children. One of the dissenting sources I spoke to said some of the resistant ICE officials include career people who have lived through efforts to implement this policy in the past.

“We’ve seen family detentions before,” that source told me, characterizing internal objections, “and it’s been not pretty.”

The Obama administration insisted such detentions deter families from attempting to enter illegally. The Biden administration does not appear motivated by that notion and instead seems to see this as a potential way to manage the expected influx of new arrivals. But that source said ICE officials worry this would “be very expensive and very challenging.”

Another potential rationale for family detentions is that it could expedite the removal of families who don’t qualify for asylum. But this historically “hasn’t led to more removals,” one of the dissenters told me. Alternatively, ICE could redouble its focus on tracking migrant families released into the United States.

The politics of this situation are complex. If Biden doesn’t make a visible shift in policy, Republicans will attack him for creating no new consequences for border crossings even as we are seeing an escalation in them.

But such attacks should be harder to mount if even ICE officials aren’t on board with family detentions. And there’s no reason for the administration to let fear of GOP attacks dictate anything. Instead, Biden should hew to the values that led him to criticize the practice in the first place and forcefully defend that decision.

Share This Post