Originally published by The New Yorker
Hundreds of immigrant children who have been separated from their parents or family members are being held in dirty, neglectful, and dangerous conditions at Border Patrol facilities in Texas. This week, a team of lawyers interviewed more than fifty children at one of those facilities, in Clint, Texas, in order to monitor government compliance with the Flores settlement, which mandates that children must be held in safe and sanitary conditions and moved out of Border Patrol custody without unnecessary delays. The conditions the lawyers found were shocking: flu and lice outbreaks were going untreated, and children were filthy, sleeping on cold floors, and taking care of one another because of the lack of attention from guards. Some of them had been in the facility for weeks.
To discuss what the attorneys saw and heard, I spoke by phone with one of them, Warren Binford, a law professor at Willamette University and the director of its clinical-law program. She told me that, although Flores is an active court case, some of the lawyers were so disturbed by what they saw that they decided to talk to the media. We discussed the daily lives of the children in custody, the role that the guards are playing at the facility, and what should be done to unite many of the kids with their parents. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How many lawyers were in your party? And can you describe what happened when you arrived?
We had approximately ten lawyers, doctors, and interpreters in El Paso this past week. We did not plan to go to the Clint Facility, because it’s not a facility that historically receives children. It wasn’t even on our radar. It was at a facility that historically only had a maximum occupancy of a hundred and four, and it was an adult facility. So we were not expecting to go there, and then we saw the report, last week, that it appeared that children were being sent to Clint, so we decided to put four teams over there. The teams are one to two attorneys, or an attorney and an interpreter. The idea is that we would be interviewing one child at a time or one sibling group at a time.
How many interviews do you do in a day?
We do a screening interview first to see if the child’s most basic needs are being met. Is it warm enough? Do they have a place to sleep? How long have they been there? Are they being fed? And if it sounds like the basic needs are being met, then we don’t need to interview them longer. If, when we start to interview the child, they start to tell us things like they’re sleeping on the floor, they’re sick, nobody’s taking care of them, they’re hungry, then we do a more in-depth interview. And those interviews can take two hours or even longer. So it depends on what the children tell us. So I’d say, with a team of four attorneys, if you’re interviewing several groups, which we sometimes try to do, or if you interview older children who are trying to take care of younger children, then you are interviewing, let’s say, anywhere from ten to twenty children per day.
How many kids are at the facility right now, and do you have some sense of a breakdown of where they’re from?
When we arrived, on Monday, there were approximately three hundred and fifty children there. They were constantly receiving children, and they’re constantly picking up children and transferring them over to an O.R.R. [Office of Refugee Resettlement] site. So the number is fluid. We were so shocked by the number of children who were there, because it’s a facility that only has capacity for a hundred and four. And we were told that they had recently expanded the facility, but they did not give us a tour of it, and we legally don’t have the right to tour the facility.
We drove around afterward, and we discovered that there was a giant warehouse that they had put on the site. And it appears that that one warehouse has allegedly increased their capacity by an additional five hundred kids. When we talked to Border Patrol agents later that week, they confirmed that is the alleged expansion, and when we talked to children, one of the children described as many as three hundred children being in that room, in that warehouse, basically, at one point when he first arrived. There were no windows.
And so what we did then was we looked at the ages of the children, and we were shocked by just how many young children there were. There were over a hundred young children when we first arrived. And there were child-mothers who were also there, and so we started to pull the child-mothers and their babies, we started to make sure their needs were being met. We started to pull the youngest children to see who was taking care of them.
And then we started to pull the children who had been there the longest to find out just how long children are being kept there. Children described to us that they’ve been there for three weeks or longer. And so, immediately from that population that we were trying to triage, they were filthy dirty, there was mucus on their shirts, the shirts were dirty. We saw breast milk on the shirts. There was food on the shirts, and the pants as well. They told us that they were hungry. They told us that some of them had not showered or had not showered until the day or two days before we arrived. Many of them described that they only brushed their teeth once. This facility knew last week that we were coming. The government knew three weeks ago that we were coming.
So, in any event, the children told us that nobody’s taking care of them, so that basically the older children are trying to take care of the younger children. The guards are asking the younger children or the older children, “Who wants to take care of this little boy? Who wants to take of this little girl?” and they’ll bring in a two-year-old, a three-year-old, a four-year-old. And then the littlest kids are expected to be taken care of by the older kids, but then some of the oldest children lose interest in it, and little children get handed off to other children. And sometimes we hear about the littlest children being alone by themselves on the floor.
Many of the children reported sleeping on the concrete floor. They are being given army blankets, those wool-type blankets that are really harsh. Most of the children said they’re being given two blankets, one to put beneath them on the floor. Some of the children are describing just being given one blanket and having to decide whether to put it under them or over them, because there is air-conditioning at this facility. And so they’re having to make a choice about, Do I try to protect myself from the cement, or do I try to keep warm?
We weren’t originally planning to be there on Thursday, but one of the reasons why we came back for a fourth day is that some of the children, on Wednesday, told us that there was a lice infestation, as well as an influenza outbreak, at that facility, and so a number of the children are being taken into isolation rooms, quarantine areas where there’s nobody with them except for other sick children.
There was one child-mother who took her baby in there, because the baby got the flu. And then the mother, because she was in there caring for the child, got the flu as well. And so then she was there for a week, and they took the baby out and gave the baby to an unrelated child to try to take care of the child-mother’s baby. Sorry, I was trying to remember where I was going with that.
Oh, I know what I wanted to tell you. This is important. So, on Wednesday, we received reports from children of a lice outbreak in one of the cells where there were about twenty-five children, and what they told us is that six of the children were found to have lice. And so they were given a lice shampoo, and the other children were given two combs and told to share those two combs, two lice combs, and brush their hair with the same combs, which is something you never do with a lice outbreak. And then what happened was one of the combs was lost, and Border Patrol agents got so mad that they took away the children’s blankets and mats. They weren’t allowed to sleep on the beds, and they had to sleep on the floor on Wednesday night as punishment for losing the comb. So you had a whole cell full of kids who had beds and mats at one point, not for everybody but for most of them, who were forced to sleep on the cement.