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‘It's Not The Place They Should Be’: U.S. Rep. Castro Discusses Visit To Carrizo Springs And Immigration Reform

A sign at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' unaccompanied minors migrant detention facility at Carrizo Springs, Texas, U.S. on July 10, 2019. REUTERS/Julio-Cesar Chavez
Julio Cesar Chavez/REUTERS
A sign at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' unaccompanied minors migrant detention facility at Carrizo Springs.

Congressman Joaquin Castro led a Democratic delegation on a tour of a temporary shelter for migrant children in Carrizo Springs Friday. It is one of at least eight temporary facilities in Texas opened or announced by the Biden administration to house a large number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border. TPR’s Maria Mendez spoke with him after the tour.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Mendez: Could you tell me why you decided to go to Carrizo Springs today?

Castro: Our congressional delegation went to Carrizo Springs because we wanted to make sure that these kids — these unaccompanied minors — are being treated humanely and respectfully and with dignity. And so this was the first "influx shelter" that was opened during the Biden administration. And we're also going there to try to get a better understanding of how we can fix this broken system, and what recommendations we can make to the president and the executive branch, and how we can work with them on improving the system.

Mendez: Can you tell me what you saw and what the conditions were? Were they as troublesome as some of the reports that we've heard?

Castro: Well, the conditions in these places are always spartan. And there were about 800 or 900 kids today that were in the facility. These facilities are in a lot better condition than the CBP processing centers. And that's where we often see the pictures of people sleeping with what look like aluminum blankets, and they're in cramped conditions, in holding cells that look like jails. This facility looks different than that.

Mendez: And was there social distancing?

Castro: Yeah, there was social distancing that was being practiced. There were educational services that were being provided. There's people that are working there that as far as we could tell were doing their best to try to take care of these kids. But it's not the best environment for that. It's not the place they should be. What the administration needs to focus on is building out the capacity of the asylum system to move people as quickly as possible, from when they present themselves for asylum at the border, to their family sponsors who can take care of them while they wait for their claim to be processed.

Mendez: And you've been in Congress for a while now, and so you've seen the seasonal increase in migration before. How does this compare to what you've seen under past administrations?

Castro: Well, in terms of the numbers, it's comparable to what we saw in 2019. And the increases tend to be cyclical. Now, part of the difference here is that the Trump administration did everything it could to damage the system for the infrastructure for processing and settling asylum seekers. So they reduce the capacity that we have to hold kids in a humane setting. And so that's part of the reason that you see now more than ever, the CBP facilities just overrun with kids, because it's harder to send them places. Because Donald Trump essentially let a lot of that infrastructure go.

Mendez: Biden, yesterday, in his White House press conference, said that he is working on building up capacity to house migrant children. Do you think he could have moved quicker on that? Should he have started doing that, you know, maybe early in February, than when he did start?

Castro: I know that the Biden transition team, I think it recommended to the Trump administration that they do something about increasing capacity. As we started to see the flows of folks increase. Unfortunately, the Trump administration was not very cooperative. And so look, this administration inherited a very tough problem with a political party and the Republican Party that always tries to use immigration, and asylum as a wedge issue, to try to convince Americans that there's a bunch of brown people coming in here to hurt them. And so, you know, it's it, they're in a tough spot. And so we're going to try to do everything we can to work with the administration to treat these kids right, but also to fix this problem.

Mendez: And what are your thoughts on some of the terminology that we've seen, you know, particularly from Republicans about this being another border crisis? Do you agree with that assessment?

Castro: I think the conditions that these folks are fleeing certainly constitutes a crisis. I'm not going to fault anyone for calling this a humanitarian crisis. It's a very deep humanitarian challenge. But if they mean that it's a crisis in the sense that these people are all terrorists coming here to harm all of us as Americans — I think a lot of them, that's exactly what they're trying to imply — then, no, I think it's just politics at that point.

Mendez: And do you think there are ways to sift through some of that rhetoric? A lot of people have already started pointing out that it seems like history is repeating itself in terms of Biden trying to work on broader immigration reform and the situation at the border already prompting some Republicans to say that they're concerned about immigration reform, due to what's happening on the border.

Castro: Well, look, there's a group of Republicans who are going to use the issue of immigration to try to stop immigration reform, to try to convince the American people that it's too scary to do immigration reform. And so that's kind of to be expected at this point. You know, they've done it for years. They've done it for a generation at least, and they're going to do it again. And we just have to work through that. I hope that bills like the U.S. Citizenship Act, DREAM and TPS Act, the Farm Work Force Modernization Act — I hope that these bills can ultimately be bipartisan, truly bipartisan in the Senate, but that remains to be seen.

Mendez: Do you think there has been some sort of progress? Because, on one hand, for example, we have seen Sen. Cornyn say that he supports Dreamers or DACA recipients. Do you think that that's maybe a sign of progress and possibility for that type of reforms?

Castro: No. I mean, look, the issue with Sen. Cornyn, I appreciate his words. But that's mostly what they did over the years, is words. And when it comes down to it, Sen. Cornyn has not acted on a DREAM Act. Now, he could support a clean DREAM Act bill that's going to be coming to him shortly in the Senate, and if he supports that piece of legislation, then he should sign his name as a cosponsor to the bill. He has every opportunity to do that. It's time that we move past words and action.

Mendez: I also wanted to ask you about Biden's comments yesterday. He said that he will continue accepting migrant children, despite some of the challenges in housing them at the moment. But he said that most families — he actually said all families — should be turned away. What do you make of those comments? And do you agree with that policy?

Castro: I know that the Biden ministration has been accepting only unaccompanied minors, and otherwise continuing to expel asylum seekers under Title 42 because of the public health exception. The administration needs to work as quickly as possible so that it will be in a position to fully honor international and U.S. law and discontinue expelling people under Title 42. The nation is on the brink of coming out of the pandemic. It looks like we got to be careful for the variants, for any surges, of course. But, you know, as we expect that the country, as the president said, by the end of May every adult American over the age of 18 will have the opportunity to take COVID-19 vaccine at that point, then they need to build up a capacity to deal with these folks in a humane way, and to discontinue expelling people under Title 42.

Mendez: Well, thank you for your time.

Castro: Yeah, absolutely. Take care.

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María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria