White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday maintained to characterized the situation at the southern border as a “crisis,” insisting “children presenting at our border who are fleeing violence” is a “circumstance,” despite devasting leaked images showing an overcrowded detention center packed with young migrants.
During the daily White House Press Briefing, NBC News reporter Kelly O’Donnell pointed to Texas Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar’s released photos of a packed migrant facility in Donna, Texas meant for 260 capacity limit holding over 400 minors. The images showed young unaccompanied minors in crowded conditions, sleeping on plastic mattresses and huddled together in silver space foil blankets while some are held inside plastic-divided “pods” used to hold migrants. Cuellar said he did not visit the facility himself or take the photos himself, but described the “terrible conditions for the children,” who he said Border patrol agents are “doing the best they can under the circumstances,” but were “not equipped to care for kids” and “need help from the administration.”
“Now that the public has seen that, is that not a crisis? And what conditions or situation, what metrics would have to be in place for the administration to call it that?” O’Donnell asked Psaki, who for weeks refused to call the burgeoning situation at the border a “crisis.”
“Well, children presenting at our border who are fleeing violence, who are fleeing prosecution, who are fleeing terrible situations, is not a crisis. We feel that it is our responsibility to humanely approach this circumstance and make sure they are treated and put in conditions that are safe,” Psaki responded.
The Biden administration has refused to characterize the situation at the border as a crisis, despite their efforts to handle the massive surge of migrants crossing, and prominent Democratic lawmakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have called the surging numbers of unaccompanied minors a “humanitarian crisis.”
Psaki noted that White House officials reviewed Cuellar’s photos of the Texas detention facilities admitted that the center “not places made for children,” despite many being held for upward of 10 days, way past the 72-hour hold period. The Biden administration has adopted an unwritten policy of only allowing all unaccompanied children who illegally cross the border to stay in the country, but the influx of unaccompanied minors in Border Patrol custody has stretched the system to its limits, creating a backlog and leaving the Biden officials scrambling in crisis mode.
“Our focus now is on solutions and putting in place policies including expediting processing at the border, opening up additional facilities, something that you’ve seen developments on over the past several days, and there’ll be certainly more on, restarting our Central American Minors program, which was stopped in 2017. Thousands of kids should be eligible to apply for that, so they’re not making this journey. Our focus is on solutions and implementing them as quickly as possible,” Psaki said.
As of Saturday, CBP reported that about 5,000 unaccompanied minors, out of 15,500 are currently in federal custody.
Psaki also detailed the administration’s social media campaign investment, targeting countries in Central and South America with television, radio, and social media ads in urging would-be asylum seekers to “communicate clearly” the message that now is “not the time to come, our borders are not open.”
Since Jan. 21, the State Department has “placed an estimated 17,118 radio ads in Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in Spanish, Portuguese, and six indigenous languages,” noting these ads have played on “33 radio stations” and are “reaching an estimated 15 million people.”
The press secretary also cited the State Department working with Facebook and Instagram to develop an advertising campaign to put “our migration messages in the social media streams of millions of individuals who fit the profile of intending migrants.” She added that a “total of 589 digital ads and paid searches display” have “reached more than 26 million people since Inauguration Day” and “created over 73,000,000 impressions.”
When asked if the media campaign has worked, Psaki said it’s “difficult” to indicate the impact and if the message is working.
“Let me say it is difficult to note the people who did not come, that is never a number we will have a mark on. So this is just part of our effort to send a clear message,” Psaki said, arguing that more “funding is needed” to address the real root causes causing an influx of migrants fleeing.
Shortly after Psaki’s lackluster briefing, the Biden administration announced that the San Diego Convention Center will act as a shelter for unaccompanied kids. The convention center has a capacity of 125,000, but it’s unclear how many children will be brought to the facility as the White House have awarded Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) an $86.9 million contract to house undocumented immigrants flooding into the U.S. from Mexico in hotels and motels near the border. The contract, through Texas-based nonprofit Endeavors, would provide 1,239 beds and “other necessary services” and will last six months where undocumented immigrants will receive a comprehensive health assessment, including COVID-19 testing.