(New York, NY) — In a series of alarming steps backward in its pledge of transparency, the Biden-Harris administration has been denying members of the news media visibility and access to immigration facilities at the U.S.-Mexico border. As the detention crisis at the border swells and the need for reporting sharpens, PEN America calls for swift removal by the Biden administration of any restrictions on press to access these areas.

Multiple accounts from journalists state that they have been denied entry to facilities, “ride-alongs” with patrol agents, and have been physically blocked at the Rio Grande riverbank, all of these being points of access that had been permitted in previous administrations. This comes as the Bide-Harris administration has placed thousands of migrant children in custody and has denied access to detention facilities.

“After four years of challenging a White House that regularly disregarded press freedom and the public’s right to access critical information, this kind of government opacity is a disappointment and strikes a blow to the Biden-Harris administration’s stated commitment to the First Amendment,” said Nora Benavidez, PEN America’s director of U.S. free expression programs. “While the White House has repeatedly spoken on the record about the importance of a free press and promised the American public more insight into federal decision-making, we see no such commitment in practice at the border, where transparency is a critical piece of forging better policy. We urge the White House to put its commitments into practice and grant immediate access for reporters to cover what is happening at our southern border.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki promised to “share the truth even when it’s hard to hear” on her first day on the job, but repeated deflection and excuses for the administration’s media block undermine this pledge. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas traveled to the border with several other elected officials, but cited privacy and health concerns when asked about the lack of media presence.

PEN America has long stood for press access to migrant detention centers and for journalists covering the immigration crisis on the border. PEN America most recently joined a coalition effort this week, calling for the Department of Homeland Security to affirm its commitment to transparency and to reverse its policy of banning journalists. In 2019 PEN America called for the Trump administration to open migrant camps to journalists’ scrutiny, and in 2018 hosted a panel discussion at the Texas Book Festival entitled “Stories (Un)told,” featuring journalists speaking to the challenges of covering child detention issues and immigration more broadly. 

Also in 2019, PEN America joined coalition efforts with other human rights and media freedom organizations in sending an open letter to the Department of Homeland Security expressing concern for the privacy violations and explicit targeting by Customs and Border Protection of journalists, activists, and lawyers working on issues around the “migrant caravan”. Following that letter, the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged it had engaged in the surveillance and tracking of these individuals. PEN America has also condemned the unacceptable practice of the government’s surveillance of journalists reporting on this issue and authored a petition urging the administration to stop monitoring journalists at the border that has garnered more than 58,000 signatures to date.