Fact check: Obama administration approved, built temporary holding enclosures at southern border

Chelsey Cox, USA TODAY
·6 min read

The claim: Michelle Obama criticized the Trump administration for putting kids in cages, but the cages were built during the Obama administration

The claim is illustrated in a Facebook meme that recently went viral. Former President Barack Obama's head was superimposed over the face of a person in a construction worker's outfit. "Obama" stands in front of crowds of fenced-in children who are supposedly migrants detained at the southern U.S. border.

The text above the image reads, "Michelle Obama: Trump is putting kids in cages. Guy who built the cages."

Barack Obama is implied as the "guy who built the cages."

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The meme was posted to the Facebook page Vintage Political Memes. The page is an extension of Being Libertarian LLC, a group that caters to "minarchists, classical liberals, anarchists, independents, Objectivists, capitalists, and right/left-leaning libertarians," according to its website.

The picture in the meme — minus the inserted Barack Obama — of a crowded enclosure full of migrant children at a border facility in Texas was released by the Office of the Inspector General in 2019, according to a tweet by NBC News correspondent Gadi Schwartz. Schwartz said a senior manager called the conditions at the facility, "a ticking time bomb."

USA TODAY reached out to Being Libertarian for comment.

What Michelle Obama said

During her keynote address at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 19, the former first lady made a comment about the Trump administration's policies toward migrant children detained at the border.

"They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages," Mrs. Obama said, according to The Associated Press.

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The entire statement can be found in a transcript posted to CNN.com on Aug. 18.

"They see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists. They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages, and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful (protesters) for a photo-op," she said.

It is true that Trump administration immigration policies involved separating migrant children from their parents and detaining them in "cages," a practice halted by a federal judge in 2018, according to USA TODAY. During the speech, Obama did not mention the holding enclosures were built during her husband's administration.

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Why were the 'cages' built?

In a 2019 interview with nonpartisan think tank The Aspen Institute, Jeh Johnson, Barack Obama's Homeland Security secretary, told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly that the "cages" predate the Trump administration.

"Chain-link barriers, partitions, fences, cages, whatever you want to call them were not invented on January 20, 2017," Johnson said.

Kelly asked Johnson about a 2014 photograph of him touring an Arizona facility for migrants along with former Gov. Jan Brewer. The picture is archived on the website for the Arizona Capitol Times.

That image was also part of another social media meme accusing Michelle Obama of lying about "kids in cages" during her DNC speech. Facebook user Eulalia Maria Jimenez posted it to her page on Aug. 18. Johnson is circled in red in the image.

Johnson explained the picture was taken during a spike in unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border of the country.

"The photograph you're referring to was a facility in Arizona — I recognize the photograph because Gov. Brewer was with me — and it was during the spike ... and we had a lot of unaccompanied kids, we had a lot of family units. And under the law, once they're apprehended by the border patrol, within 72 hours, we have to transfer unaccompanied children to (the Department of Health and Human Services). And HHS then puts them in a shelter, and they find placement for them somewhere in the United States." Johnson explained.

He said the construction of the 72-hour holding facilities was prompted by a sudden influx of migrants.

Local NBC affiliate KVEQ reported on the conversion of a McAllen, Texas, warehouse into a holding facility for up to 1,000 migrant children in 2014.

"You can't just dump 7-year-old kids on the streets of McAllen or El Paso. And so, these facilities were erected ... they put those chain-link partitions up so you could segregate young women from young men, kids from adults, until they were either released or transferred to HHS. Was it ideal? Of course not," Johnson said.

In 2019, former Trump administration acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan confirmed the migrant holding facilities were built during the Obama administration during a panel hosted by The Center for Immigration Studies. The center is a "pro-immigrant, low-immigration" think tank, according to its website.

"The kids are being housed in the same facilities built under the Obama administration. If you want to call them cages, call them cages. But if the left wants to call them cages, and the Democrats want to call them cages, then they have to accept the fact that they were built and funded in FY ’15, and I was there," Homan said, according to a transcript.

The Associated Press reported in late 2019 that an unprecedented 69,550 migrant children were held in U.S. custody over that year.

But Michelle Obama's assertion that the Trump administration tore children from their families and threw them into cages alludes to "a frequent and distorted point made widely by Democrats," according to the AP. The facilities designed during the Obama administration to temporarily hold migrants were used for a similar purpose by President Trump, the AP also concluded.

Fact check: Meme is partly false about Republican National Convention speakers

Our rating: True

We rate this claim TRUE, based on our research. The initial claim correctly attributes migrant holding facilities to the Obama administration. However, the meme doesn't elaborate on the intended purpose of the facilities: to hold migrant children for 72 hours before releasing them to the Department of Health and Human Services for further placement.

Our fact-check sources:

Contributing: Associated Press

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Obama administration built migrant 'cages'; meme is true