President Joe Biden’s administration for the first time in over two months in power has allowed the press to access a border facility.
A reporter and camera crew were permitted to tour a holding center in Carrizo Springs, Texas, along with administration officials and members of Congress.
The facility is one of at least five the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has opened to deal with a surge in illegal immigrants, as well as converting two convention centers into holding areas and asking the Pentagon to take immigrants.
Photographs from the pool camera showed clothes in stacks for the children, as well as bunk beds, tables set up in a classroom-like setting, and the outside of a shower.
There was also one image of children playing soccer outside.
NBC’s Gabe Gutierrez, the only reporter allowed inside, said he saw “plenty of children” during the two-hour tour but that he wasn’t permitted to speak to any of them. The crew was able to see intake and dining areas, as well as a medical clinic.
The children waved and were playing soccer, with some of them wearing knitted hats, the reporter said on MSNBC. Officials said the kids knit the hats themselves.
Officials are holding 766 children in the facility, which has a capacity of 952. The facility was opened during the Trump administration. Of the children being held, 108 tested positive for COVID-19. Those who test positive are isolated for an indeterminate number of days.
Images from the HHS facility contrasted sharply with photographs leaked by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Project Veritas earlier this week, showing overcrowded conditions in a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility in Donna. CBP later released its own images showing children sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder in a transparent pen.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is set to lead a delegation to the Donna facility, said the administration “hand-picked a TV crew to accompany their trip to the Carrizo Springs.”
“That’s not transparency. True transparency would be to open the Donna facility to press that’s at 1,556% capacity when 18 Senators go there Friday,” he said in a tweet.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington that officials “remain committed to transparency and will continue to work with agencies on creating avenues for media access to and visibility into these facilities.” The administration is “open to providing access” to the Donna holding center, she added.
Psaki also said that there are privacy concerns, as well as health concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As you can imagine, there are children, minors, in these sites. As a mother, I would also be extremely mindful and careful of allowing press and other external actors from coming to a facility where you’re going to broadcast the conditions of children,” Julissa Reynoso, assistant to the president and First Lady Jill Biden’s chief of staff, told the pool in Texas.
“So we have been very careful, obviously we’re here now. We’re taking steps to ensure that the press and members of Congress and the public and America can see what we’re doing.”
CBP is holding children and other illegal immigrants for days, in some cases for over the 72-hour limit laid out in federal law.
HHS and the Department of Homeland Security told The Epoch Times via email late Wednesday that as of March 23, nearly 5,000 unaccompanied minors were in CBP custody while 11,551 were in HHS custody.
As part of his reversals of key Trump-era immigration policies, Biden directed officials to stop expelling unaccompanied minors when they cross the border from Mexico. Experts have told The Epoch Times that the move, along with other rollbacks, has contributed to the surge in illegal border crossings.
More than 100,000 such crossings were recorded in February, Biden’s first full month in office, while another 26,000 immigrants evaded capture, according to data reviewed by The Epoch Times.
Republicans and some Democrats like Cuellar and Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) have called on the administration to immediately reinstate key measures, such as sending some minors back to their home countries.
Instead, officials are currently processing the children and working to unite them with sponsors, in most cases family members, who are already in the United States. They argue they’re creating a “more humane” immigration system.
Biden on Wednesday tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead his administration’s efforts at the border.
“This increase has been consequential, but the vice president has agreed … to lead our diplomatic effort and to work with those nations to accept the returnees and enhance migration enforcement at their borders,” Biden said.
Harris called the crisis “a challenging situation.” Many factors motivate people to travel to the United States, she added, and the administration will enforce the law while working on addressing root causes of the migration.
Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), who was on Wednesday’s tour, said that the children she met there “are not criminals,” adding in a statement, “We must work together to find solutions for them.”
The children are being taken care of and there is ample COVID-19 testing, Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) added. “I know that we’ll address, fully address, this problem working together. There are solutions; we are working on them,” she said in a video statement.
Charlotte Cuthbertson contributed to this report.