- Baby formula can be found at migration processing facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border.
- Since the 1990s, border officials have been required to provide adequate food and water to minors.
- The baby formula shortage in the United States was caused by recalls, supply chain issues, and the purchasing patterns of new parents.
In May 2022, as a shortage of baby formula in the United States continued, a photograph supposedly showing a pallet of baby formula at a detention facility on the border of the United States and Mexico was widely circulated online:
This photograph was often accompanied by captions accusing the Biden administration of causing or worsening the shortage by prioritizing refugees over Americans. Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik, for example, tweeted: "Joe Biden continues to put America LAST by shipping pallets of baby formula to the southern border as American families face empty shelves."
Is it true that the Biden administration is shipping baby formula to the border? If so, is this a new endeavor? Is it causing or worsening the current baby formula shortage?
Here's what we were able to find out.
Does This Photo Really Show Baby Formula at the Border?
This photograph first received widespread attention after it was shared to social media by Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., on May 11. Cammack said that it was sent to her by a Border Patrol agent at the Ursula Migrant Processing Center in McAllen, Texas.
While we haven't been able to independently verify the origin of this picture, we see little reason to doubt its authenticity. Even if it were somehow fake or misleading (possibly taken at a different facility or in a different year), it is almost certainly true that this border facility has some baby formula on hand.
Why? Because it is required by law.
Why Is There Baby Formula at the Border?
Border officials are required to provide humane treatment to any person detained at a border processing facility. This includes providing bathrooms, sinks, food, water, medical attention, and other basic necessities. A spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told us via email:
CBP takes seriously its legal responsibility to ensure the safety and security of individuals in our custody. Ensuring migrants, including children and infants, in our custody have their basic needs met is in line with this Administration’s commitment to ensuring safe, orderly, and humane processes at our border. CBP complies with all applicable regulations for the purchase of products used in CBP facilities.
Is Providing Baby Formula at the Border a New Policy?
While outrage over the presence of baby formula at the border is new in May 2022, this isn't a new policy. In fact, border officials have been required to provide adequate food to minors since at least the 1990s.
In 1997, during former U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration, a class action lawsuit regarding the treatment of immigrant children while in the custody of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was settled in what is known as "The Flores Agreement." This agreement set strict national standards for the detention and treatment of minors while in federal custody.
Among other things, the Flores agreement requires border officials to provide adequate food and water to any minor in their custody:
"Facilities will provide access to toilets and sinks, drinking water and food as appropriate, medical assistance if the minor is in need of emergency services, adequate temperature control and ventilation, adequate supervision to protect minors from others, and contact with family members who were arrested with the minor.”
An article published by the CBP that detailed the agency's response to the thousands of Central American migrants who sought asylum in the U.S. during former President Donald Trump's administration stated that the agency provided diapers, clothing, and baby formula to migrant families:
In addition to having a roof over their heads out of the summer heat, CBP provided hot meals and snacks, hygiene kits, medical services, transportation, sleeping mats, blankets, drinking water, diapers, wipes, baby formula and clothing sets.
“We are providing a humane solution to families, unaccompanied children and adults during this crisis. We are providing all the essential services and products,” said Rosie Zaragoza-Santos, a contracting specialist who works with the CBP office responsible for the timely buying and delivery of the supplies and services provided at each temporary structure. “We are addressing the humanitarian effort by issuing contracts that provide clean clothing, housing, food, medical care and showers for incoming migrants, while also supporting our agents at the frontline.”
Is the Baby Formula at the Border Causing the Baby Formula Shortage?
When we previously investigated the causes of the baby formula shortage, we didn't find any mentions of these border facilities. Generally speaking, the shortage started after one of the major U.S. manufacturers of baby formula had to recall several products. Inflation and general supply chain issues may have also had an impact on the supply.
The Atlantic reported that the COVID-19 pandemic also complicated issues, as it changed baby formula purchasing patterns:
The pandemic has snarled all sorts of supply chains, but I can’t think of a market it’s yanked around more than infant formula. “During the spring of 2020, formula sales rocketed upwards as people stockpiled formula just like they stockpiled toilet paper,” Lyman Stone, the director of research at the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence, told me. Then, as “families worked through their stockpiles, sales fell a lot. This oscillation made planning for production extremely difficult. It was complicated to get an idea of the actual market size.” Meanwhile, Stone’s research has found that an uptick in births in early 2022 has corresponded with a “very dramatic decline in rates of breastfeeding” among new mothers, which pushed up demand for formula once again.
It should also be noted that the amount of baby formula used at these migration facilities accounts for a miniscule portion of the formula that is used across the country. In 2020, there were approximately 3.6 million babies born in the United States, about 75% of whom were fed infant formula at some point before age 1. Comparatively speaking, there were close to 150,000 unaccompanied minors in detention at some point during 2021, the vast majority of whom (75%) were over the age of 15. While we don't know the precise number of infants who passed through custody, we can say that the number is in likely in the hundreds, not millions.