Psaki defends reopening of migrant facility for children under Biden: ‘This is not kids being kept in cages’

Psaki pressed on Biden, Harris' past comments during the Trump administration on migrant facilities for children

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday defended the reopening of a migrant facility at the border for children under the Biden administration, saying it is a "temporary reopening" amid the COVID-19 pandemic as she was pressed on the president's past comments during the Trump administration on such facilities.

Psaki was asked by Fox News why the Biden administration was reopening a facility for migrant children in Texas -- considering President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris' history railing against facilities for migrant children while Donald Trump was president. She replied that their policy is "not to expel unaccompanied children who arrive at the border."

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"The process, how it works, is that Customs and Border control continue to transfer unaccompanied children to the HHS office of Refugee Resettlement," Psaki explained, adding that "can take a couple of days."

Psaki said that due to COVID-19 protocols, the social distancing requirements and capacity limits at Refugee Resettlement Shelters have "been significantly reduced, because, of course, you can’t have a child in every bed."

Psaki said that it is a "temporary reopening during COVID-19," and that the administration’s "intention is very much to close it, but we want to ensure that we can follow COVID protocols as unaccompanied minors come into the United States."

But Psaki was pressed further, as the facility that has been reopened is the same facility that was used by the Trump administration in the summer of 2019.

At the time, in an op-ed in the Miami Herald about his Latin America policy published on June 24, 2019, then-candidate Joe Biden said: "Under Trump, there have been horrifying scenes at the border of kids being kept in cages, tear-gassing asylum seekers, ripping children from their mothers’ arms."

And in July 2019, then-candidate Sen. Kamala Harris said that Trump "has pushed policies that’s been about putting babies in cages at the border in the name of security," instead calling it "a human rights abuse being committed by the United States government."

Psaki, though, defended the reopening, saying that the administration "very much feels that way."

"These are facilities," Psaki said. "Let me be clear here, one, there is a pandemic going on."

"This is not kids being kept in cages," Psaki continued. "This is a facility that was opened that is going to follow the same standards as other HHS facilities. It is not a replication. Certainly not."

She added: "That’s never our intention—of replicating immigration policies of the past administration."

"But we are in a circumstance where we are not going to expel unaccompanied minors at the border," she continued. "That would be inhumane. That is not what we are going to do here as an administration. We need to find places that are safe and mental services consistent with their best interests."

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Psaki added that the "goal" of the Biden administration is for unaccompanied minors "to then be transferred to families or sponsors."

"This is our effort to ensure that kids are treated, or not in close proximity, and that we are abiding by the health and safety standards that the government has set out," she said.

Psaki’s defense comes after the administration opened a facility to house up to 700 immigrant teenagers after they cross the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied by a parent, a sign of growing worries about how children are treated in government custody.

U.S. Health and Human Services said Monday that the first teens arrived at Carrizo Springs, Texas, which was converted two years ago into a holding facility under former President Donald Trump. The facility has been closed since July 2019.

The Trump administration imposed a "zero tolerance" policy that led to family separations, meaning that  anyone caught crossing the border illegally was to be criminally prosecuted, even if they had few or no previous convictions.

Under that policy, adults were taken to court for criminal proceedings, while their children were separated from them. If the charges took longer than 72 hours to process, children would be sent from the care of Customs and Border Protection to the Health and Human Services Department.

Trump, though, signed an order to stop family separations in 2018. 

But last month, the Biden Justice Department, just days after President Biden came into office, rescinded the enforcement policy for migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, which resulted in thousands of family separations.

Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson issued the new memo to federal prosecutors across the nation, saying the department would return to its longstanding previous policy and instructing prosecutors to act on the merits of individual cases.

"Consistent with this longstanding principle of making individualized assessments in criminal cases, I am rescinding — effective immediately — the policy directive," Wilkinson wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.