The Biden administration has so far denied journalists access to border facilities amid a surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the US-Mexico border, which has raised questions about its commitments to increased transparency.
Senators from both sides of the aisle have called on the administration to allow journalists access to the facilities.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday the White House was working on finalizing details to allow journalists access to the facilities and that the privacy of the minors and Covid-19 precautions were factors being considered.
“We remain committed to transparency,” Psaki said at a White House briefing. “We certainly want to make sure that the media has access to these sites.”
But when Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas led a bipartisan delegation of senators to El Paso, Texas, on Friday, reporters were not allowed to accompany them.
The Department of Homeland Security said the trip was closed to journalists because of privacy and Covid-19 precautions.
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“We are in the midst of a pandemic. We are dealing with crowded Border Patrol facilities. We are focused on our operations and the needs of the children and at the same time we are working to provide access to those Border Patrol facilities when we can do so in a safe manner,” Mayorkas told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday.
The Biden administration is scrambling to accommodate a surge in unaccompanied minors arriving at the border, which has overwhelmed and strained government resources. Administration officials said Thursday that the federal government had more than 14,000 migrant children in its custody.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who was part of the delegation with Mayorkas visiting facilities, told NPR that media access to the facilities 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. That’s the reason I was there, to hold them accountable,” Murphy, who is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, said.
Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee who was also on the trip to the border, said Sunday that he would “absolutely” push DHS to give journalists access.
“This should be transparent,” Portman told CBS. “I mean, it’s amazing to me how little my constituents know about what’s going on down along the border, and it is a situation spiraling out of control.”
In addition to restricting media access, the Biden administration has also not provided their own photos of the facilities. CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez was able to obtain photos from Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, which provided a rare window into the conditions for dozens of children and adults in an overflow facility in Donna, Texas.
Under the Trump administration, journalists were allowed to tour and document border and detention facilities in 2019. The Trump administration received backlash for their policy of separating children from their parents at the border – a policy that was ultimately reversed – and also came under scrutiny for facility conditions.
More than 800 unaccompanied migrant children have been in Border Patrol custody for more than 10 days, according to documents reviewed by CNN. Federal law requires unaccompanied children to be turned over within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees a shelter network designed to house minors, but amid constraints related to the pandemic, children are staying in custody for longer than the 72-hour limit.
Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas wrote a letter to Biden on Monday urging him to “use your full authorities to effectively respond to and successfully manage the ongoing crisis at our Southwest Border.”
“It is critical that our nation take aggressive steps to secure our border, protect our communities and ensure migrants are treated fairly and humanely,” the letter from the Democrat and Republican reads.
Senior Biden administration officials are traveling to Mexico on Monday to discuss managing migration with government officials. Roberta Jacobson, the Biden administration’s coordinator for the southern border, and Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, will be making the trip, according to NSC spokeswoman Emily Horne.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez and Geneva Sands contributed to this report.