A traumatic and dangerous situation is unfolding for some 250 migrant infants, children and teens locked up for up to 27 days without adequate food, water and sanitation, according to a legal team that interviewed dozens of children at a Border Patrol station in Texas.
The lawyers who recently visited the facility near El Paso told The Associated Press that three girls, ages 10 to 15, said they had been taking turns watching over a sick two-year-old boy because there was no one else to look after him.
When the lawyers saw the boy, he was not wearing a diaper and had wet his pants, and his shirt was smeared in mucus. They said at least 15 children at the facility had the flu, and some were kept in medical quarantine.
The children told lawyers that they were fed uncooked frozen food or rice and had gone weeks without bathing or a clean change of clothes at the facility in Clint, in the desert scrubland some 40km southeast of El Paso.
“In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention, I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” said Holly Cooper, a lawyer who represents detained youth. “Seeing our country at this crucible moment where we have forsaken children and failed to see them as human is hopefully a wake up for this country to move toward change.”
The lawyers negotiated access to the facility with officials and said Border Patrol knew the dates of their visit three weeks in advance.
Many of the more than 60 children the lawyers interviewed had arrived alone at the US-Mexico border, but some had been separated from adult caregivers such as aunts and uncles, the lawyers said.
Government rules call for the children to be held by the Border Patrol for no longer than 72 hours before they are transferred to the custody of Health and Human Services, which houses migrant youth in facilities around the country.
Migrant children deaths
The allegations about the conditions inside the El Paso facility are the latest complaints about mistreatment of immigrants at a time when record numbers of migrant families from Central America have been arriving at the border.
Government facilities are overcrowded and five immigrant children have died since late last year after being detained by the US government.
In an interview this week with the Associated Press, acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner John Sanders acknowledged that children need better medical care and a place to recover from their illnesses. He urged Congress to pass a $4.6bn emergency funding package includes nearly three billion dollars to care for unaccompanied migrant children.
He said that the Border Patrol is holding 15,000 people, and the agency considers 4,000 to be at capacity.
“The death of a child is always a terrible thing, but here is a situation where, because there is not enough funding … they can’t move the people out of our custody,” Sanders said.
The Trump administration has been scrambling to find new space to hold immigrants and asylum seekers as it faces withering criticism from Democrats that it’s violating the human rights of migrant children by keeping so many of them detained.