Overcrowded facilities. Sick, filthy and hungry children sleeping on concrete floors. Young children taking care of infants and toddlers in the enforced absence of their parents.
News stories emerged last week about squalid conditions at a Border Patrol detention facility housing about 300 migrant children on the U.S.-Mexico border. The media accounts described the facility in Clint, Tex., near El Paso, that houses children separated from their parents by order of the Trump administration.
Apart from their appalling specifics, the stories were notable for one element: They were all based on secondhand accounts. Reporters were unable to see the facilities themselves or speak to any of the children. Instead, they relied on descriptions provided by lawyers and advocates who were granted access under a legal settlement with the Border Patrol.
The blackout on press access has left Americans largely in the dark about conditions in government facilities designed to handle migrants who have crossed the border. Photographs and TV images are both rare and often dated. Rarer still are interviews with federal agency managers and employees and with the children themselves.
Journalists, government officials and migrant advocates agree that permitting reporters to see the facilities firsthand would change public perceptions about the treatment of migrants. There’s disagreement, however, about how it would change.
“If journalists had access to the detention centers at the border where children are being held in filthy conditions, those centers would not exist,” said Elora Mukherjee, an attorney who interviewed children at the Texas facility and described them to reporters last week. “If videos were released there would be massive changes” because the public outcry would be enormous.
Mukherjee, who directs the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, said the conditions she witnessed at the federally run facility in Clint were the “worst ever” in the dozen years she has been representing and interviewing migrant children in federal custody.
Government officials say legal issues, especially privacy concerns, make unfettered media access to border facilities a non-starter. According to one official, the general counsel’s office of the Department of Homeland Security, which supervises border law-enforcement agencies, has advised the agency that it is unlawful for third parties to take photographs or videos of “pretrial detainees,” especially of children, who cannot legally consent to such media portrayals.
Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which supervises many of the detention facilities, have periodically given tours of the facilities to journalists on the condition that no images or recordings are made.
The restrictive media policy, however, is under debate within the two agencies. Some officials argue that more transparency would be beneficial because it would allow the public to see the extensive efforts made by government employees and contractors dealing with a spike in the number of migrants. Even images that document inadequacies at the facilities might be beneficial because they could help build popular support for more resettlement funding from Congress.
A DHS spokesman declined to comment. Customs and Border Protection officials didn’t reply to a request for comment.
Caitlin Dickerson, who covers immigration for the New York Times, said gaining access to the detention facilities — never easy under any circumstances — has gotten harder since December, when two children died in federal custody. (Since then, at least five more have died.) Dickerson isn’t sure if officials are intentionally barring reporters or if they’re simply unable to deal with an upsurge in the news media’s requests for entry.