A growing chorus of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have called on theto allow reporters and journalists into facilities housing unaccompanied migrant children who have sought asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The appeal for greater transparency with the American public and those who cover it comes as the U.S. faces a growing humanitarian crisis at its southwest border, driven by Central America's economic devastation,, gang violence and political persecution, as well as a new presidential administration.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas predicts the U.S. is on pace to encounter more migrants at its southwest border than in 20 years. Amid the ongoing surge in crossings, President Biden said Sunday that "at some point" he will be going to the border.
Senator Rob Portman, ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and one of four senators who accompanied Mayorkas to the border on Friday, told CBS News' "Face the Nation" that he will "absolutely" push to open Custom and Border Protection (CBP) facilities to journalists amid calls for transparency.
"This should be transparent," Portman said. "It's amazing to me how little my constituents know about what's going on down along the border. It is a situation spiraling out of control."
Senator Chris Murphy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, also participated in the trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. The Democratic lawmaker told NPR on Saturday that opening up access to media coverage is "something that we should all press the administration to do better on."
"We want to make sure that the press has access to hold the administration accountable," he said. "That's the reason I was there, to hold them accountable. And they've seen a surge that began last year, that began under the Trump administration, but it's real. It's pressing their resources."
As of Saturday morning, more than 5,000 unaccompanied minors remained in a CBP tent holding facility in south Texas and other stations along the border with Mexico. According to the government records, unaccompanied children are spending an average of 136 hours in CBP custody, far beyond the 72-hour legal limit.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was also housing nearly 10,500 unaccompanied children in emergency housing facilities and shelters licensed by states to care for minors, according to department spokesperson Mark Weber.
Another lawmaker on the trip, Senator Shelley Moore Capito, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, told The Washington Post on Saturday that more than 200 border agents have been diverted to a Customs and Border Protection processing center in El Paso to care for children.
According to Capito, as many as 100 migrant children were being held in a large room at the facility amid the coronavirus pandemic, and many are being held in CBP custody beyond the legal limit of 72 hours before transfer into HHS custody. Capito expressed concern about the overstay in CBP facilities, noting, "They'll move 50 out a night [and] have another 100 come in that night."
The Republican senator also told The Washington Post that she reinforced to the DHS secretary that reporters should be allowed inside border facilities. "I pleaded with him to have as much transparency with us ... but with the press as well," Capito said.
In an interview with ABC News on Sunday, Mayorkas cited both privacy and health concerns in letting reporters into the facilities. "Let me be clear, we're in the midst of the pandemic. We're talking about a crowded Border Patrol station where we are focused on operations," Mayorkas said.
"At the same time, and let me assure you, that we are working on a plan to provide access so that people could see what is going on at Border Patrol stations," the DHS secretary continued. "I would encourage people to also see the Department of Health and Human Services facility where the children are sheltered and where they belong and where we are moving them to."
The delegation's trip to the border on Friday remained closed to press "due to privacy and COVID-19 precautions," according to the DHS statement.
A Biden administration official indicated on Thursday that DHS made an "operational decision" in March 2020 "to discourage visitors" because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and that rule "still stands."
Journalists were permitted into government facilities to inspect the conditions and speak with asylum seekers during past migrant surges, including under the Trump administration in 2018 and Obama administration in 2014.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that the Biden administration did not have a timeline for when the public would be able to see the conditions inside border facilities, amid repeated questioning in the White House briefing room.
"We remain committed to sharing with all of you data on the number of kids crossing the border, the steps we're taking, the work we're doing to open up facilities, our own bar we're setting for ourselves, improving the and expediting the timeline and the treatment of these children," Psaki said, deferring further questions to the Department of Homeland Security. "And we remain committed to transparency. I don't have an update for you on the timeline for access, but it's certainly something we support."
In addition to media access, the Biden administration has not provided photos nor video documenting the inside of crowded government facilities housing migrant children amid the COVID-19 public emergency.
But the Biden administration, including Homeland Security officials, have repeatedly vowed to expand transparency and access into department operations since before the president's inauguration. In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on January 19, Mayorkas promised "to elevate the level of public engagement, so that we are a transparent agency — transparent not only to the public that we serve, but to the media whose responsibility it is in part to hold us accountable."
Camilo Montoya-Galvez contributed to this report.