President Donald Trump said in Thursday’s final presidential debate that immigrant children who were separated from their parents were in facilities that “were so clean” and were well “taken care of.”
The comments come more than two years since the spring of 2018, when the Trump administration announced the so-called zero tolerance policy that targeted those who crossed the border without authorization.
A year later, through messages collected by attorneys, immigrant children detainees described being cold and hungry while crowded into cages with little or no access to showers, clean clothes, places to sleep. Teen mothers also said they had struggled to keep their babies clean and warm.
"They are so well taken care of. They're in facilities that were so clean,” Trump said Thursday night.
A year after the policy was implemented, in June 2019, inspectors evaluating border facilities found many problems.
The inspectors visited several border facilities in the Rio Grande Valley and found adults and minors with no access to showers, many adults only fed bologna sandwiches, and detainees banging on cell windows — desperately pressing notes to the windows of their cells that detailed their time in custody.
Some adults were held in standing-room-only conditions for a week. There was little access to hot showers or hot food for families and children in some facilities. Some kids were being held in closed cells.
Earlier this week, lawyers tasked with locating immigrant families who were separated by the Trump administration reported in court that they have been unable to reach the parents of 545 children.
Since 2018, Department of Homeland Security inspectors have found that the government lacked the technology to track all the immigrant families who were separated at the southern border.
Elsewhere, dozens of families and children, including one as young as 5 months old, were separated at US ports of entry in 2018 after seeking asylum, despite assurances from senior Homeland Security officials that immigrants who fit their profile wouldn't be, according to inspectors evaluating the policy.
During the debate on Thursday, Biden called the result of the policy and the inability to track down the parents of the children “criminal.”
“It's criminal. It's criminal,” he said.
Trump then asked Biden “Who built the cages?” in an apparent reference to border facilities that were built during the Obama administration. Former DHS secretary Jeh Johnson said in an interview with the Aspen Institute that the concept of “cages” predated the Trump administration.
"Chain-link barriers, partitions, fences, cages — whatever you want to call them — were not invented on Jan. 20, 2017," he said, according to USA Today.
However, Trump’s policy of prosecuting those who were crossing the border illegally, including families, which lead to separations, was apart from a previous approach of separating relatives only in specific instances.