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Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) On His Visit To A Shelter For Migrant Teens

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Some of the enduring images of the Trump administration's hardline immigration policies are the pictures of young children and teenagers being held without their parents in warehouse-like facilities. At the time, critics called some of the facilities cages. President Biden came into office promising a more humane approach. But that promise is being tested as his administration faces a surge in the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border. It's struggling to find adequate housing for them while their status is being evaluated.

One solution - last month, officials decided to reopen a facility in the town of Carrizo Springs, Texas, once used briefly by the Trump administration to house young migrants. Back in 2019, the opening of that facility drew protests from immigrant advocates, so we want to begin today by asking about the conditions inside the facility now. We called Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas for this because he visited the Carrizo Springs center on Friday, and we spoke with him shortly after his visit.

Representative Cuellar, welcome. Thank you so much for being here with us.

HENRY CUELLAR: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about what you saw. I mean, the facility was built as large enough to house 1,300 teen migrants. Do you know how many people are there now? What did you see? What are the conditions?

CUELLAR: They can hold that place - and first of all, let me say about the place - they set up places where they have a place for legal services. They have a place there for education, where they do long-distance learning, medical and cafeteria. They're not cages. I can tell you that much. But it's a facility that's being run by a vendor, a contractor that's been doing this for many years. And FEMA uses them, and, of course, HHS uses them also.

MARTIN: Do you know how many people are there now? How many teens are there now at the facility?

CUELLAR: A little bit over 700 capacity - I think 952. So they're ages 13 to 17. And most of them were from Honduras, some from Guatemala. But, of course, you find them from El Salvador also.

MARTIN: How do you feel about what you saw?

CUELLAR: It's sad that you have young kids that have traveled miles and miles and miles. Some of them quite honestly - it's sad - get assaulted on the way up here. In fact, I just got a picture. This was at a different place. It was an 11-year-old that they apprehended yesterday - unaccompanied, no relatives. She was coming in with a large group from Honduras. And she wanted - she was completely blind, completely blind, confused about her whereabouts. And she had a piece of paper saying, I have relatives in North Carolina.

Imagine being 11 years old, traveling from Honduras, completely blind and doing this travel. Imagine that particular situation. So it has to be very, very, very sad about, you know, what we get to see there.

MARTIN: So at the time of its opening, this particular facility, as we said, drew protests. Some likened it to concentration camps. I take it you disagree with that. I think you disagreed with it then, and I assume you disagree with that now.

CUELLAR: I can tell you it's not a concentration camp by far. It is not a - you know, kids are being kept in cages. We saw where they slept. We saw where they shower. We saw where they get educated. We saw where they get legal services. We saw where they were first brought in and given new clothes and - so they can be here. So, you know, with all due respect, it's not that at all.

MARTIN: I'm sure you know that some critics of the current administration have slammed the president, President Biden, for essentially using the same facilities or - and methods as the former president to cope with this recent surge in unaccompanied minors arriving at the border.

Now, you have a reputation for working - one of the few Democrats, actually, who had a reputation for really working closely with the former administration, so I know that you have some disagreements with the way some of those efforts were characterized sort of even then. But sort of overall, what's your assessment? I mean, do you think that this is the best this country can do?

CUELLAR: Is this the best we can do as a country? You know, of course, we can always do better. They're usually kept in the system for about 37 days and, you know, maybe reduce that to find the sponsor. But we have to be careful that we don't put them in the hands of some traffickers. So, you know, you've got to be very careful. So, you know, they might be a all-government type of center that we can do at the very beginning, where we have different agencies. But, you know, we've got to find better ways of doing this.

And remember, you know, people that say, well, the pull factors - you know, Biden has gotten rid of all of his policies, and therefore the numbers are coming higher. I would remind people that under the Obama administration, about 513,000 people would come in per year average. Under Trump, it was 493,000 people. Almost - except for a difference of 20,000, it was almost the same. And people would say, oh, look at all of those policies by Trump. And, you know, it worked. The reality is it was almost the same numbers under Trump and Obama.

MARTIN: Interesting. As to the question of children, though - because this is the thing that I think just pushes a lot of people's buttons - and I think, you know, people are very concerned when they see young children - you know, they assume that - you know, people have obviously different views of this. I mean, people - some people will look at that and say, what kind of parents would let their kids go unaccompanied? Other people look at that and say, how terrible conditions must be that parents would send their children.

First of all, can - is there a better way, in your view, to handle this right now? Is there something that you think this administration should be doing differently right now? And, you know, in the long term, is there something differently that the country should be doing?

CUELLAR: Look, once the kids are here, we treat the kids like they're our kids. But keep in mind, you know, how long or what do we do, is there things that we can do in those countries that make life better and all that? You know, since 2014, I was involved in adding the first $750 million for Central America. Over the years, it's been reduced down to $520 million a year. So we're talking about billions of dollars that we give to Central American countries. And we've still got kids coming in, and we've still got families coming in.

So it's a combination of, you know, making life better there - you know, crime, jobs, social programs, which are the push factors, and then the pull factors, what policies we have here. But I can tell you one thing. There was one pull factor that we don't want to get rid of. We're still the country that everybody admires and everybody wants to come in. And as long as we're the best country in the world, people are going to try to come into the United States.

MARTIN: That was Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas.

Congressman, thank you so much for sharing some time with us today.

CUELLAR: Thank you so much. And we'll hope to see you in person next time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.