Steve King Compares Immigrant Children Detention Centers to “Playgrounds”

Recent news reports suggest the truth about the detention centers is starkly different from the anti-immigrant congressman's rosy take

Screenshot via TMZ

Congressman Steve King on Tuesday defended the detention of immigrant children at the US-Mexico border, tweeting a link to a video of what he called an “impromptu interview” with a reporter with the Hollywood tabloid news site TMZ during which King compared the detention centers to humane and well-maintained “playgrounds.” (Read King’s full remarks below.)

In a parking lot on his way to a car, King was asked about “the concentration camp remarks” Democrats have made about the facilities, which have sparked national and international outrage after Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April announced a zero-tolerance policy for illegal border crossings. Since early May, more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents, according to the Department of Homeland Security, including from families that arrived at the border seeking asylum to escape brutal violence in Central America.

Although the child separation policy, which in recent days has been strongly condemned by both Democrats and Republicans — including Iowa’s pre-eminent anti-gay social conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats in the New York Times — is a Trump-era policy, King dismissed the controversy by discussing two trips he made to the border during the Obama administration, as recently as 2014.

“They did set up chain-link panels inside to divide people, so they could keep boys away from girls and things like that,” King said, suggesting that Obama-era photos of immigrant children in holding cells that recently went viral and were mistaken for current images, were misleading regardless. “But they also air-conditioned that whole building, and they had coaches in there, they were playing soccer in air conditioning, they were taking care of people, they were making sure everybody had medical care.”

The reporter then asked King: “Where in the Bible do you find justification for this? Do you find it?” (Sessions last week cited a Bible verse once used to defend slaverly in the US as justification for separating children from their parents.)

“I don’t find any prohibition to this whatsoever,” King replied. “There’s nothing cruel about this. These are children that are cared for with better care than they get in their home country” including “medical care like a lot of kids in this country don’t get.”

Numerous news reports since the child separations began appear to contradict King’s claims. They include a story of an agent taking an infant from a mother while she was breastfeeding (the Border Patrol has denied this) and of a father who committed suicide after his wife and 3-year-old son were taken from him. There’s no guarantee that parents will ever be reunited with their children — something White House Chief of Staff John Kelly dismissed in an interview with NPR by saying, “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”

An Associated Press account Monday from inside one warehouse facility in southern Texas reported that “hundreds of children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing. One cage had 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets.”

On the same day, ProPublica published audio from inside a detention facility of children crying and begging to be reunited with their families as a Border Patrol agent jokes: “Well, we have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.”

Here’s the full transcript of the minute-and-a-half-long interview:

Reporter: What do you think about Democrats saying these are — comparing these to — the concentration camp remarks that they’re making about the children that are being separated from their parents?

King: [Laughs] Oh, I’ve been down there. And I’ve made at least two trips down there. I walked into the — it was a great big warehouse that they in 17 days, they retrofitted it so they could house kids. This was back in 2014, and the numbers were so great that they had to find a place to put them.

So they did set up chain-link panels inside to divide people, so they could keep boys away from girls and things like that. But they also air-conditioned that whole building, and they had coaches in there, they were playing soccer in air conditioning, they were taking care of people, they were making sure everybody had medical care.

This was during the Obama administration, by the way. But it was not a cage. There was a great big area, and they just took the picture through the chain link. So it would be the same kind of fence that’s on a playground.

Reporter: I’ve seen both sides using the Bible in this. [On] which side do you come down — where in the Bible do you find justification for this? Do you find it?

King: I don’t find any prohibition to this whatsoever. There’s nothing cruel about this. These are children that are cared for with better care than they get in their home country. They get everything they need. They get a warm and a comfortable place to sleep, they get medical care like a lot of kids in this country don’t get, they get three squares a day, they get exercise, fresh air, and so I don’t know how you could ask for more than that.

Reporter: I heard they only get out for like two hours of exercise.

King: [Smiles] They’re exercising indoors, in air conditioning. I don’t get to do that.

Reporter: All right, thanks congressman.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.