Young Asylum Seekers Caged, Neglected at U.S. Border

Overcrowding observed by DHS Inspector General June 11, 2019, detention center Weslaco, Texas (Photo courtesy OIC) public domain.

By Sunny Lewis

WASHINGTON, DC, July 9, 2019 ( News) – “I’m hungry here at Clint all the time. I’m so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger. … I’m too scared to ask the officials here for any more food, even though there is not enough food here for me,” says a migrant boy, age 12, held at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Border Station Clint in El Paso, Texas.

“The day we arrived, my baby became sick. She could not open her eyes and had a fever which got much worse during the day. I asked the guard for help and he told me to ‘just deal with it.’ I asked for help again, and was ignored,” said a girl, age unknown, held at Border Station Clint.

“I was apprehended with my father. The immigration agents separated me from my father right away. I was very frightened and scared. I cried. I have not seen my father again… I have had a cold and cough for several days. I have not seen a doctor and I have not been given any medicine,” said a boy, age 5, at Clint.

Based on his own observations during several inspections, and on these and other comments by refugee children in DHS custody, Senator Jeff Merkley, who represents the U.S. State of Oregon in Congress, is asking the DHS Inspector General to investigate whether DHS officials or staff broke the law “in mistreatment and neglect of children who have been held in squalid and dangerous conditions at the southern border.”

The Office of Inspector General is the oversight division of DHS, entrusted with the task of preventing inefficient or unlawful operations within the parent agency.

“The reasons for this request are obvious,” said Merkley. “Shocking conditions and staff practices exist at Customs and Border Patrol Facilities now being used to detain migrant children, in particular at Border Station Clint in El Paso, Texas.”

“If child welfare went into a foster home and found children in dirty clothes, with unchanged diapers, denied soap and toothpaste, those children would be whisked away and the adults would face possible prosecution,” said Merkley. “The adults responsible for the rampant mistreatment of children in their custody at Clint and elsewhere need to similarly be held accountable.”

In his June 27 letter to DHS Acting Inspector General Jennifer Costello, Merkley requests “…that the Office of Inspector General (OIG) immediately initiate an investigation into causes and decision-making surrounding the mistreatment and neglect of migrant children in DHS custody and to determine whether DHS officials or staff are culpable for violations of applicable laws, regulations, policies and procedures causing or contributing to the mistreatment of migrant children in DHS custody.”

Acting Inspector General Costello has already issued two management alerts about the conditions migrants and asylum seekers face at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“In May 2019, we issued a management alert about dangerous overcrowding observed in the El Paso area during our unannounced inspections of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) holding facilities. During the week of June 10, 2019, we traveled to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and again observed serious overcrowding and prolonged detention in Border Patrol facilities requiring immediate attention,” Costello wrote in her July 2 Memorandum to DHS Acting Secretary and Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Kevin McAleenan.

Costello was particularly concerned about violations of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search (TEDS), an agency-wide policy that sets forth the first nationwide standards which govern CBP’s interaction with detained individuals.

“For example,” wrote Costello, “children at three of the five Border Patrol facilities we visited had no access to showers, despite the TEDS standards requiring that “reasonable efforts” be made to provide showers to children approaching 48 hours in detention. At these facilities, children had limited access to a change of clothes; Border Patrol had few spare clothes and no laundry facilities. While all facilities had infant formula, diapers, baby wipes, and juice and snacks for children, we observed that two facilities had not provided children access to hot meals — as is required by the TEDS standards — until the week we arrived. Instead, the children were fed sandwiches and snacks for their meals.”

Costello also expressed concern about the conditions in which adults are held, writing that “Overcrowding and Prolonged Detention of Single Adults Have Resulted in Security Incidents and Non-Compliance with TEDS Standards.”

“In the Border Patrol facilities we visited,” wrote Costello, “we also observed serious overcrowding and prolonged detention among adult detainees. TEDS provides that “under no circumstances should the maximum [cell] occupancy rate, as set by the fire marshal, be exceeded.”11 However, at one facility, some single adults were held in standing room only conditions for a week and at another, some single adults were held more than a month in overcrowded cells.”

“In these overcrowded conditions, CBP was unable to meet TEDS standards. For example, although TEDS standards require CBP to make a reasonable effort to provide a shower for adults after 72 hours, most single adults had not had a shower in CBP custody despite several being held for as long as a month,” Costello wrote in her memo to McAleenan.

More evidence of the neglect and abuse of child detainees at the U.S. southern border was gathered by a group of volunteer lawyers and doctors under the direction of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, who in June visited and interviewed hundreds of children at border patrol facilities in Texas.

They found that children were being warehoused in deplorable, life-threatening conditions – overcrowded, unsanitary, unhealthy, and severely traumatizing.

The visits were negotiated with Customs and Border Protection because the team is monitoring government compliance with the Flores settlement reached in 1997 in the case of Jenny Lisette Flores, an unaccompanied 15-year-old child from El Salvador. The Flores settlement agreement reached with the U.S. Government under the Clinton Administration sets the national standards for the humane treatment and prompt release of children in immigration custody nationwide. The case is now captioned Flores v. Barr in the federal court in Los Angeles.

The Trump administration has been pushing to end the Flores settlement, arguing its terms get in the way of immigration enforcement. Customs and Border Protection has pushed back against the allegations raised by the lawyers, doctors and advocates last week, saying that its facilities are not fitted to care for children.

The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law (CHRCL)and co-counsel have filed an emergency request for a Temporary Restraining Order and a Contempt Order against CBP in federal district court in Los Angeles , demanding that CBP immediately start processing children for release to parents and relatives as required by the Flores settlement, and to provide them with basic necessities including adequate food, clean water, medical care, and access to sleep.

In its court filing, the CHRCL says, “…class member children are held for weeks in deplorable conditions, without access to soap, clean water, showers, clean clothing, toilets, toothbrushes, adequate nutrition or adequate sleep. The children, including infants and expectant mothers, are dirty, cold, hungry and sleep-deprived. Because the facilities deny basic hygiene to the children, the flu is spreading among detained class members, who also are not receiving essential medical assessments or prompt medical treatment. Very young children are charged with responsibility for toddlers, with no adult or family supervision.”

“With each passing day, more hospitalizations are occurring and more lives are at risk. Immediate judicial intervention is necessary to compel immediate compliance with the Agreement, end this health and welfare crisis, and prevent more illness and child deaths at the border,” the CHRCL states in its filing.

Attorney for the child plaintiffs, Peter Schey, said, “The 80 declarations of class members we have gathered over the past two weeks and are filing in court today disclose that they are detained in what they call ‘hieleras,’ or ‘iceboxes,’ or in cages, under appalling, overcrowded, and unsanitary conditions which has caused a health crisis for class members and the deaths of several children.”

“The conditions described in class members’ declarations disclose a pattern and practice of neglect and utter disregard for the health and well-being of children in CBP’s care and custody. Several class members have recently died in CBP custody. These deaths may have been prevented had CBP simply complied with the terms of the Flores Settlement and promptly released children to their relatives and provided safe and sanitary detention conditions for all children in its custody,” said Schey.

In his letter to Costello, Senator Merkley listed reported abuses at Clint detailed in the Temporary Restraining Order filing:

  • no staff care for tender age children under five;
  • inadequate and substandard child care, particularly with respect to health, sanitation and nutrition;
  • no effort to reunify children with families;
  • unsuitable space for children;
  • unreasonable delay in moving children to more appropriate settings;
  • arbitrary punishment of children;
  • movement of hundreds of children out of the Clint facility in days only after its atrocious conditions were or were about to be exposed; and
  • the return of 100 children to Clint days later only after the media reported on their removal.

“President Trump may want to cause chaos at the border to win re-election, but letting children become sick and die should be a practice he stops immediately,” Schey declared.

This situation has inevitably become a political issue around which President Trump is building his re-election campaign. Trump blames Mexico. He said on May 30 in a statement from the White House, “Mexico’s passive cooperation in allowing this mass incursion constitutes an emergency and extraordinary threat to the national security and economy of the United States. Mexico has very strong immigration laws and could easily halt the illegal flow of migrants, including by returning them to their home countries.”

To pressure Mexico into doing his bidding, on June 10, Trump imposed a five percent tariff on all Mexico goods entering the United States, a tariff that will increase stepwise to 25 percent on October 1.

He also blames the Democrats, saying in the May 30 statement, “Democrats in Congress are fully aware of this horrible situation and yet refuse to help in any way, shape, or form. This is a total dereliction of duty. The migrant crisis is a calamity that must now be solved – and can easily be solved – in Congress. Our broken asylum laws, court system, catch-and-release, visa lottery, chain migration, and many other loopholes can all be promptly corrected. When that happens, the measures being announced today can be more readily reduced or removed.”

Democratic presidential hopefuls responded in their first debates held June 26 and 27 in Florida where immigration was a hot topic.

Frontrunner former Vice President Joe Biden of Delaware said, “The first thing I would do is unite families. I’d surge billions of dollars’ worth of help to the region immediately.”

President Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden said he was the one who got a bipartisan agreement to spend $740 million to get to the root cause of why people are leaving their homes in the first place.

“It was working,” said Biden. “We saw, as you know, a net decrease in the number of children who were coming. The crisis was abated. And along came this president, and he immediately discontinued that. We all talk about these things. I did it.”

Senator Kamala Harris, a woman of color who came to Congress from her position as California’s attorney general, told fellow debaters, “I will also immediately put in place a meaningful process for reviewing the cases for asylum. I will release children from cages. I will get rid of the private detention centers.”

“We have to think about this issue in terms of real people,” Harris said. “A mother who pays a coyote to transport her child through their country of origin, through the entire country of Mexico, facing unknown peril, to come here – why would that mother do that? I will tell you. Because she has decided for that child to remain where they are is worse. But what does Donald Trump do? He says, ‘Go back to where you came from.’ That is not reflective of our America and our values, and it’s got to end.”

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont told fellow debaters that if he wins the White House, “On day one, we take out our executive order pen and we rescind every damn thing on this issue that Trump has done!”

“Number two, said Sanders, “picking up on the point that Joe [Biden] made, we’ve got to look at the root causes. And you have a situation where Honduras, among other things, is a failing state. Massive corruption. You’ve got gangs who are telling families that if a 10-year-old does not join that gang, that family is going to be killed. What we have got to do on day one is invite the presidents and the leadership of Central America and Mexico together. This is a hemispheric problem that we have got to address.”

Presidential hopeful former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper is shocked and outraged by the treatment of children in DHS custody, saying, “If you’d ever told me any time in my life that this country would sanction federal agents to take children from the arms of their parents, put them in cages, actually put them up for adoption – in Colorado, we call that kidnapping – I would have told you it was unbelievable. And the first thing we have to do is recognize the humanitarian crisis on the border for what it is. We make sure that there are the sufficient facilities in place so that women and children are not separated from their families, that children are with their families.

And Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said in debate, “One of the worst things about President Trump that he’s done to this country is he’s torn apart the moral fabric of who we are. When he started separating children at the border from their parents, the fact that seven children have died in his custody, the fact that dozens of children have been separated from their parents and they have no plan to reunite them.”

“First,” Gillibrand said, “I would fight for comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. Second, I would reform how we treat asylum-seekers at the border. I would have a community-based treatment center, where we’re doing it within the communities, where asylum-seekers are given lawyers, where there’s real immigration judges, not employees of the attorney general, but appointed for life, and have a community-based system. I would fund border security.”

“But the worst thing President Trump has done is he’s diverted the funds away from cross-border terrorism, cross-border human trafficking, drug trafficking, and gun trafficking, and he’s given that money to the for-profit prisons,” said Gillibrand. “I would not be spending money in for-profit prisons to lock up children and asylum-seekers.”

Finally, the flames of public outrage over the separation of families and the conditions in which children are held were fanned this week by the “Propublica” report of members of a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents who joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility in Texas and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant, according to screenshots of their postings.

In one exchange, group members responded with indifference and wisecracks to the post of a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant who died in May while in custody at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas.

Created in August 2016, the Facebook group, with roughly 9,500 members from across the country, is called “I’m 10-15.” 10-15 is CBP code for “aliens in custody.” The group described itself, in an online introduction, as a forum for “funny” and “serious” discussion about work with the patrol.

Responsible for policing the nation’s southern and northern boundaries, the Border Patrol has come under intense scrutiny as the Trump administration takes new, more aggressive measures to halt the influx of undocumented migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The patrol’s 20,000 agents serve under the broader U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which has been blamed for allegedly mistreating children and adults in its custody. The agency’s leadership has been in turmoil. Its most recent acting chief, John Sanders, resigned last week and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s acting head, Mark Morgan, has been tapped to fill the position.

Featured Image: vercrowded cages full of detained asylum seekers, June 10, 2019 detention center McAllen, Texas (Photo courtesy OIG) public domain

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