The Curious Conundrum of Children in Cages

This post should take approximately 10 minutes to read. Compared to some of my others, it isn’t very complicated and doesn’t require anything more than an open mind and, for the duration, you to leave your politics aside and to check your preconceived notions at the introduction. I’d also like to take this opportunity to dedicate it to my friends and peers in the Border Patrol who day-after-day do a challenging and dangerous job, often in unforgiving conditions. Honor First! 

3/1/21 – Some have brought it to my attention I was not specific enough regarding the construction of cages in McAllen, Texas, in 2014, versus those in Nogales, Arizona, so additional information, in bold has been added for context. ~ HC

Introduction

Like “Hysterectomy Hysteria & Holocaust Hyperbole,” this post is a direct response to current events involving immigration and how social media shapes the narrative, unintentionally or purposefully, about those happenings. To understand where this piece is heading, I think it essential you know from where it came: Central America. No, not literally; thanks to COVID, I haven’t been home to see my family since January 2020, but very much figuratively. It’s going to end up the middle of an unintentional three-part series, between “Yes, Asylum is ‘Legal,’ But…” and an as-yet-untitled one on the Flores Settlement Agreement (FSA or more commonly, just Flores), which governs the treatment of children in immigration custody. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true; I think I’ve decided on a title and had already started writing it when several of you, who shall remain nameless and blameless, requested this one. Come to think of it; I may have started my Flores piece after the one on Congress’ plan to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Hongkongers (people from Hong Kong).

Pedantic Semantics

Merriam-Webster defines pedantic as “an insulting word used to describe someone who annoys others by correcting small errors, caring too much about minor details, or emphasizing their own expertise especially in some narrow or boring subject matter.” While it’s not a word people commonly use, when it comes to immigration laws and their enforcement, the underlying meaning is frequently something for which I find myself on the receiving end online. The truth is, I don’t set out to be arrogant (an assessment of which some of my detractors, I imagine, strongly disagree), and I don’t care which side of the issue you find yourself. That said, I expect—and don’t think it’s unreasonable—for your comments about immigration to be accurate. When they aren’t, whether because you’re relying on an appeal to emotion, misstating something like ‘being an illegal alien is a crime,’ it’s not, or omit facts, like how while asylum is legal, entering the U.S. between Ports of Entry isn’t, you deserve to be called out on it. From my very first tweet, on second thought, maybe not that one because it was about abortions for illegal aliens, I’ve sought to help people whether they want it or not, argue their pro- or anti-immigration, legal or illegal, arguments factually. No more, no less. I could, I guess, as the kids say, be thought of as bringing receipts.

Creating a captivity controversy

When it comes to ‘kids in cages,’ it’s essential to understand why there were cages in the first place; who built them, when, where, and for what purpose? The answers to these questions are simple, but people often miss them, blinded by their own biases and political ideology. When confronted with the information, they resort to denial, or worse, retreat behind the tired response the person telling them is racist. Nevertheless, to quote businessman, philanthropist, and self-help book author Wm. Clement Stone: 

“Truth will always be truth, regardless of lack of understanding, disbelief or ignorance.”

Back in November 2020, days after the election had been called for Joe Biden, I was active on a Twitter thread started by actress Idina Menzel, where she tweeted her son had just hugged her, saying, “mommy no more kids in cages!” (Ed. I see it’s active again for the same underlying reason I’m writing this post.) Led by a user @miss_karyn, and followed by another, @Jessy8a10, who has since deleted her comments, several people attempted to drag me suggesting I was racist for observing the now-infamous Trump “cages” weren’t the first, and I’m not simply referring to how they were later associated with Obama based on 2014 photos, nor were they likely originally for children.

Pictures of kids in cages fall into three categories: 1. those taken during Trump’s administration, which while often of children separated by the zero-tolerance policy, but are sometimes families, what the Border Patrol terms “Family Units (FUs),” 2. ones from Obama second term, usually of what the Agency refers to as Unaccompanied Alien Children (UACs), and 3. pictures from the latter administration, which are meme’d online in attacks against the former. However, this one from 2014 is common on the Right with convenient red circling and arrows to labels indicating then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and “children in cages,” but no other context, like how those cages were in Nogales, Arizona, rather than in McAllen, Texas, like the later ones.

While I work for the U.S. Government and have access to vast troves of information, classified and unclassified, I don’t reference anything that I can’t—not that I always do—link to online. The above thread was no different. I’ll say that I’m not above resorting to the occasional appeal to authority, but I question if providing sources when doing so doesn’t balance out it being a logical fallacy? 

Using the Border Patrol’s own Southwest Border Sector Apprehensions statistics for Fiscal Years 1960 – 2019, the Tuscon Sector, which includes Nogales, had the highest annual numbers from 1998 when it took over from the San Diego Sector as more border fencing went up there—something I could probably write an entire post on having tweeted about it a great deal in January 2019. This continued until 2013 when crossers began shifting further east into the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; however, by that point, there had been 5.3M arrests resulting in 37% of the 14.3M during those fifteen years. It’s at this point; it’s worth noting these are only apprehensions or, in less technical terms, arrests. The Border Patrol is required to provide Congress with reporting its effectiveness, but what it gives is an estimate generated from statistical modeling, which includes apprehensions. In the end, it admits it doesn’t know how many aliens might have entered without being encountered or observed because “illegal border crossers actively seek to evade detection“.

Cross-referencing apprehensions with the Border Patrol’s Nationwide Apprehensions by Citizenship and Sector from Fiscal Years 2007 – 2019, 83% of border crossers in the Tuscon Sector were Mexican down from 97% in 2007, which shouldn’t be at all surprising given it’s our Southern neighbor, and validates, independent of my familiarity with the subject, having suggested that prior to the Obama-era influx of UACs and FUs, illegal border crossers were single Mexican males looking for work, not looking for asylum. However, I’ve previously refuted claims suggesting everyone apprehended by or who surrenders to the Border Patrol is an “asylum seeker” as well.

When ‘voluntary’ isn’t but beats the alternative

Now that we’ve established that stating the obvious isn’t racist, what does one do with an average of 354,720 people apprehended for illegally entering the U.S. a year? Well, if they are Mexican and aren’t requesting asylum, there are essentially two choices, prosecution or repatriation. Prosecution for violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1325(a) could occur either in ‘Quick Court,’ which in the Tucson sector was only used until 2013, and constituted hearings held on-site at the Tucson Sector Processing Center, via Operation Streamline, i.e., the zero-tolerance program which the Obama administration inherited from W.’s and used through at least June 2014, or traditionally involving transfer to the U.S. Marshal Service for placement in the Bureau of Prisons. However, few aliens seem to receive more than time served versus the 6-month maximum penalty for a first offense or two years for a subsequent one making it the most time-consuming but least cost-effective. The alternative is generally termed ‘Voluntary Return’ (it has a specific meaning but is being used here generically to cover multiple options), whereby a Mexican would be processed and promptly expelled from the U.S. It’s not unheard of for old school Border Patrol Agents (BPAs) to tell stories of catching the same aliens day-after-day in what can only be described as a cross-border game of cat-and-mouse. As the number of apprehensions across the Southwest border increased, I imagine that game started wearing thin quickly, as evidenced by the introduction of the Consequence Delivery System, where the Agency could, based on the likelihood of potential recidivism, opt to return the border crosser without an order of removal or through Expedited Removal per 8 U.S.C. § 1225(b)(1)(A)(iii)(II), which is a formal type, but doesn’t require referral to an Immigration Judge, and the nearest Port of Entry, at one in another sector through the Alien Exit Transfer Program, or to a place far in the interior as part of the Mexican Interior Repatriation Program. Whatever method was employed, aliens were first supposed to be processed, but there are examples of that not happening, for instance, during Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego Sector during the Clinton administration. If you’ve ever heard someone tout how Obama was the Deporter-in-Chief, it was during his administration aliens were less likely to be informally returned, only to cross again later that day, or the next, over and over again. 

But back to perhaps the worst word problem: you have to process almost 202k Mexicans in addition to nationals from any other country apprehended in your sector each year, and just 8,760 hours in which to do it, when each BPA works an average of 2,000, where do you keep them? (Ed. I don’t care for math primarily because I’ve never been good at it. That said, I worked very hard to crunch the numbers for this piece, so I hope at least some of you appreciate the lengths to which I’m willing to go!) The answer would be to create a place where you could detain them until processing was complete, and you could either refer them for prosecution or make travel arrangements for their return home, I don’t know, maybe in some kind of ad-hoc detention space?  

An enduring mystery

I’ll say that I’ve never worked in the Tuscon sector; I’m not even saying I work for the Border Patrol, so I don’t have any first-hand knowledge about the chain-link fencing employed in constructing the original cages. Further, despite what I believe has been a thorough search of publicly available documentation (see above), the only thing that I can find regarding them was that they were located in the Nogales Processing Center (or NPC), which I knew already, referred to in some contemporary reporting as the ‘Nogales Placement Center.’ However, since it’s not uncommon to see Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s post-2002 parent organization referred to as “Customs and Border Patrol,” I’m going to stick with processing.

There is a historical reference in a July 2014 Order Denying Plaintiff’s Application for [a] Temporary Restraining Order in an “Orantes” filing in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. It could be argued the apprehension numbers and percentages previously cited were maybe unnecessary and off-topic, but a lengthy explanation about what the original Orantes case in 1982 was about absolutely would be. Suffice to say that because of it when it comes to encounters with U.S. Immigration Officers, Salvadorans must be treated differently from nationals from other countries. 

Raleigh Leonard, then the Division Chief of Operational Programs of the Tucson Sector and the official responsible for overseeing the NPC, submitted a Declaration which indicates “[b]efore being re-opened to house unaccompanied children on May 31, 2014, [it] was an out-of-use CBP processing center.” Later in the Order, the court recounts how “Leonard states [] there are no physical locations in the NPC where private discussions could be conducted … it would be difficult to expand or convert other space to accommodate private meetings with individual minors … [and] contends the staff working at the NPC have no private offices, and perform their duties at computer stations in a common area from which they can monitor the minors.” If the Government had built the facility specifically for minors in 2014, wouldn’t it have thought to provide some private space? There’s undoubtedly going to be some readers whose mind instantly go to a dark place, but I’ll point out that “the [U.S.] Public Health Service [was] on[-]site conducting medical examinations and giving vaccinations.

Interestingly enough, despite lingering outrage about how we treat migrant children, Leonard also mentions that “[a]lthough there are three ‘smaller open bay detention areas’ at the NPC, [] these areas are being used by the Guatemalan and Salvadoran consulates on a regular basis – for nine to twelve hours a day – and by the Honduran consulate on an ‘intermittent” basis’ [but the] areas are not private[,] and the consulates often interview unaccompanied minors in groups of five or six at a time.” Yes, you read that correctly; the Northern Triangle governments (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) were aware of the conditions, yet less fussbut admittedly not none, was made by them publicly about it until Trump was President than coverage it received by the media at the time, which was virtually none, comparatively speaking.

Movement to McAllen

Part of the problem with Nogales wasn’t that children were being kept in cages—well, I mean, that was a problem, but isn’t the point being made; instead, time and events were leaving the need for the NPC behind. Children were continuing to come alone, but now also in more significant numbers in families, and as I said before, the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) Sector had surpassed Tuscon in annual apprehensions. Transporting children from the RGV to the NPCin some cases on multiple flights per day from Texas, only to have to move them again to Health and Human Services (HHS) facilities to comply with Flores whether back to Texas or onward into the interior of the U.S. was impractical and expensive. Other facilities would be used for children and later families, including “military bases in California, Oklahoma and Texas” plus a camp at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Artesia, New Mexico, but let’s stick strictly to cages and primarily UACs, so that means there will be no reference to cages under the Paso Del Norte bridge in El Paso nor at the primary McAllen Border Patrol Station. At this point, I’d like to note that neither the Carrizo Springs, Texas facility currently in the news or any other operated for HHS has present tense, or had, past tense, “cages” bars on the windows of construction trailers, notwithstanding as they aren’t for sleeping.

CBP, under Obama, would end up opening a new facility in which to cage children in McAllen, Texas, in a converted warehouse on Ursula Avenue, which is how the Border Patrol’s Central Processing Center came to be known, “Ursula,” while what went on there, infamous during Trump’s presidency. I’m going to save comparisons and contrasts between the Obama and Trump administrations and predictions for the Harris… err, I mean Biden administration regarding children for another post, but as with this one, I can assure you I’m not going to pull any punches to keep from hurting feelings.

Despite the fact no children [remained] in the facility in Nogales [after the end of July 2014], it [wasn’t] clos[ed]. CBP tell[ing] Tucson News Now, “[t]he Nogales Processing Center remains an operational resource for Tucson Sector and can be used to assist in processing individuals apprehended in other sectors as operational demands require.” As for Ursula, after the outrage leading to court injunctions against family separations and an Executive Order ending them—the policy equivalent of screaming ‘I quit’ after being told you’re being fired, it unceremoniously soldiered on until quietly closing in November 2020 for ‘renovations,’ which we’re told: “will allow for updated accommodations, which will greatly improve the operating efficiency of the center as well as the welfare of individuals being processed”. In the meantime, a few miles east, in Donna, Texas, a sprawling temporary tent facility has been constructed to “welcome” and process UACs and FUs, in plastic containment-type rooms, which for the sake of clarity, we should call ‘waiting bubbles.’ I won’t lie; I’m going to be incredibly disappointed and will question people’s motivations if I don’t see some hashtag like #KidsInBubbles or #BidenBubbles start trending after I publish this!

Conclusion

No one’s telling you that you shouldn’t be upset about keeping kids, or anyone else in cages, kennels or perrera en español, chain-link partitions, or whatever your preferred terminology might be. In fact, if you aren’t bothered by it, there might be something wrong with you. However, blame-shifting, one-upmanship, disingenuous arguments, and omissions of facts don’t resolve the issue: kids in cages. That said, the alternative to treating children poorly shouldn’t be to allow them into the U.S. by the hundreds of thousands because their lives in Central America suck, or permit them to stay after having entered illegally without consequence or worse, reward them and, where applicable, their parents, with amnesty for doing so. Aside from being detained, the worst that can happen to a child under U.S. immigration law is deportation, and their unlawful presence isn’t held against them until they’ve turned eighteen, which applies to all so-called DREAMers.

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