The White House is continuing to defend itself against criticism from the left and right for reopening Trump-era shelters used to house unaccompanied teenagers crossing the border from Mexico.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the administration was forced to make the "tough choice" of reopening the facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, due to the number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border, which she explained meant taking responsibility for their care.
"It's either we send kids back to a very dangerous journey back to their countries. That's not a good option. I don't think anyone would support that option," Psaki said. "[Or] we send them to families that have not been vetted. We've seen challenges with that in the past where kids have been trafficked. That is not a good option in our view."
She also said the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges. The administration needed additional space due to social distancing protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
In January, more than 5,700 unaccompanied minors crossed the border, up from 4,850 in December and 4,500 in November, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP.
The first group of teenagers arrived at the Carrizo Springs facility on Monday. It has the capacity to house 700 individuals between the ages of 13 and 17.
The controversy over the shelters is just the latest example of challenges the Biden administration faces trying to transition from campaigning on immigration to governing and ensuring laws on immigration are followed.
That includes confronting comparisons to former President Donald Trump, who made tough immigration enforcement a centerpiece of his administration.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., denounced the opening of the Carrizo Springs facility, charging that the Biden team should find other ways to care for the teenage migrants seeking asylum.
"This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration or party," Ocasio-Cortez said in a heavily circulated tweet about the opening of the Texas facility.
This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay - no matter the administration or party. https://t.co/AEV7s7QQnB— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) February 23, 2021
Critics on the right have likened the housing of these children by the Biden administration to earlier accusations against his predecessor of putting "kids in cages."
Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former senior adviser on immigration in both the Bush and Obama administrations, said the comparisons to the Trump administration are unfair and not accurate.
It's true that the facilities were built by the Trump administration, but she said the similarities largely stop there.
This is not "kids in cages," she said, which referred to detention facilities run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Carrizo Springs facility is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, and it includes educational services and medical care.
Pictures of the facility show children staying in rooms with bunk beds and having access to sporting facilities.
Brown said it's not as good as being in a person's home, but the government needs to take time to ensure children are placed in safe hands.
She said the Biden team inherited a hollowed out immigration system. They can't just release the children without properly vetting potential sponsors. But they also need time to develop a new system.
"For a lot of the advocacy organizations that saw bad things happen in facilities under the Trump administration, they're disappointed Biden is reusing them," Brown said. "But really what are the alternatives the Biden administration would have right now available to them?"
Denise Bell, the researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement that using facilities like the one in Carrizo Springs cannot be the "status quo."
She agreed that it will take time to move away from the system that the Biden administration inherited. But she said it was important that officials limit the use of such shelters and move quickly to relying only on licensed facilities. The Carrizo Springs shelters are not licensed by the state of Texas.
"A government agency is not a parent for children," she said. "The reality is that children who are alone need to be accommodated for their safety while the government identifies and reunites them with appropriate sponsors. We don't want to endanger children, and we don't want them held in detention or in facilities that don't meet their best interests."