Biden tells lawmakers he would end detention of migrant children

Former Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday pledged not to hold migrant children in detention centers if elected president, according to several lawmakers who met with him in Washington on Wednesday.

Biden’s commitment came during a conversation about migrant detention centers in a closed-door meeting with more than 20 members of BOLDPAC, a political action committee that helps bankroll the campaigns of members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Biden did not offer any further details on what he exactly he would do with the thousands of young migrants currently housed in facilities run by the federal government and private contractors. The specific changes he would make to the current system of migrant detention also remain unclear.

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Children who are apprehended crossing the border illegally are placed in the custody of a patchwork of federal agencies depending on their circumstances. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is typically the first agency migrant children encounter, and CBP is supposed to transfer custody within three days.

Minors traveling with legal guardians are transferred into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) along with their family, where they are usually released within 20 days. Minors who arrived without legal guardians are placed in the custody of an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, where they will likely spend weeks or months until a sponsor in the U.S. can be found.

Recent news stories about squalid conditions for migrants in detention have mostly concerned facilities run by ICE and CBP. 

California Rep. Lou Correa, a Democrat, was at the meeting with Biden. He said BOLDPAC members were “honored” by the former vice president’s attendance, noting he was the first Democratic presidential candidate to meet with the group. He said at least one member pressed Biden on whether he would expend “political capital” for immigration reform, as the member felt President Barack Obama did not follow through with his commitment to overhaul the immigration system during his presidency.

“I believe the answer was yes,” Correa said of Biden. 

The former vice president’s assurance on Wednesday goes further than his previous statements on the policies governing the detention of migrant children by the federal government. At the end of June, Biden wrote in an op-ed in The Miami Herald that “under Trump, there have been horrifying scenes at the border of kids being kept in cages, tear gassing asylum seekers [and] ripping children from their mothers’ arms.”

He broadly promised then that “if elected president, my first step will be to ensure that our policies in the Americas once again reflect our American values.”

Shortly after Biden’s meeting with the Latino lawmakers, a House subcommittee heard from a young Guatemalan mother, Yazmin Juárez, about the dangerous conditions in an ICE detention facility in Texas, unsanitary and dangerous conditions that she believes were to blame for the death of her 21-month-old daughter last year.

With this pledge, Biden joins his fellow Democratic presidential contenders who say they would limit some forms of detention for migrants who enter the U.S. illegally.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker say they’d virtually end detention of all undocumented immigrants and support community-based alternatives in some circumstances.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said they would push to ban privately run detention centers.

In late June, several of the candidates took advantage of the location of the first Democratic primary debate, held in Miami, to visit the perimeter of a privately run migrant detention center in Homestead, Florida. Biden wasn’t one of them — he was unable to make the trip due to a scheduling conflict.

Biden’s campaign said he plans to visit the Homestead center in the future.

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