Originally published by Politico
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the treatment of migrant children in federal custody on Monday, telling the nation’s sheriffs they are well cared for after they are apprehended and separated from their parents.
But immigrant-rights advocates touring migrant holding and processing facilities in south Texas describe a different reality — children held by the dozens in barracks-like facilities with lights kept on 24 hours a day and Mylar sheets for nights spent on the floor. Often separated from relatives and surrounded by strangers, they lack caregivers to look after them, space to run around in, or even books, games or videos to distract them.
Advocates slam the conditions as inappropriate for children and say the Trump administration’s policy to criminally prosecute all migrants crossing into the United States illegally and its attendant family separations are overwhelming holding and processing centers, forcing migrants – including young children -- to stay in them for far longer than the permitted 72 hours before they are transferred to shelters.
“Some of the kids I spoke to were traumatized, some could barely speak,” said Michelle Brané, director at Detention and Asylum Program at the Women's Refugee Commission, who toured CBP facilities last Thursday.
CBP is supposed to hold migrants at its centers no longer than three days, before transferring adults to court hearings and children into shelters run by private contractors for HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. But the new zero tolerance border policy is stretching resources thin, with advocates saying some migrants are staying many days longer than allowed in facilities that are ill-equipped to handle lengthy detentions.
“There is not only a lack of capacity on the part of CBP to provide the kind of care that’s needed, but real unwillingness to address what’s needed,” said Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior counsel in the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch who visited the facilities with Brané.
“The younger boys are frightened, bewildered, lost,” he said. “They are surrounded by people they don’t know.”
CBP resources have been stretched in prior administrations, but in this case, the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” prosecution policy precipitated the crisis by splitting more than 2,300 children apart from their parents. Under the policy, all people suspected of crossing the border illegally are referred for federal prosecution, even if they’re traveling with children or seeking asylum.
But the processing center in McAllen, known as “Ursula” after the avenue where its located, began holding unaccompanied minors during the Obama administration, during a surge of young migrants from Central America.
From September 2014 to August 2015, 14 percent of migrants in nine border patrol sectors were held in CBP facilities for 72 hours or more, some as long as 104 hours, according to the American Immigration Council, which obtained documents on CBP detentions through a Freedom of Information Act request. In South Texas, in Laredo, more than half of migrants were detained longer than 72 hours.
On Sunday, reporters touring Ursula saw migrants housed in groups of as many as 35 or 40 adults and children for each cage-like cell, even though it has yet to reach its full capacity of 1,500 adults and children, according to Border Patrol officials.
A mounted chart in the center listed 42 restrooms for 4 pods of 22 cells, each listed at a capacity of 250 individuals, which Brané estimates are between 15 to 20 square feet in size. Unaccompanied children of both sexes were grouped together in separate cells for each gender, as were mothers with children.
CBP policy states that “reasonable efforts will be made to provide showers, soap, and a clean towel to detainees who are approaching 72 hours” at the facility. During Sunday’s press visit to the center, a reporter saw no indication of readily available showers but viewed a laundry room where, officials say, the mattresses migrants sleep on are cleaned daily.
Officials at Ursula declined to describe the Trump-led family separations as an undue burden. Ten permanent agents are on staff in addition to contractors, and officials described a round of new hires in the works.
Bochenek said that because CBP refuses to acknowledge that migrants are being detained in holding and processing facilities for longer periods, they aren’t making suitable accommodations.
Even before migrants get to Ursula, Bochenek and Brané said that kids and families detained at the border are sent to holding facilities known as the “Freezer,” a semi-circle of concrete cells with concrete benches along the wall, sometimes in wet clothes if they crossed the Rio Grande River or got caught in a storm, which they may have to stay in for days.
Their possessions, including medications, are taken away. Bochenek said that he saw only one toilet, separated with a half-wall, in each cell. Reporters touring the facility on Sunday saw similar conditions in cells where adult men were held but also viewed separate toilets that were more enclosed in spaces where families with young children were held.
While efforts are made to separate people into appropriate groups, in some cases Bochenek said fathers are held with daughters meaning that young girls had little privacy because they were packed in with men besides their fathers. Lopez told reporters on Sunday that girls were not necessarily always housed with fathers.
Brane said she has spoken to kids who had spent a day or two in the “Freezer,” charging that parents and children were sometimes separated there. Officials at Ursula said that separations occur when parents are sent from their center to court for prosecution, with children transferred to a shelter.
The lack of a firmly enforced 72-hour limit and murky process for handling and migrants remains a major concern for advocates. One Guatemalan asylum-seeker sued the administration on Tuesday, charging that she had been separated from her child in the process.
“They are creating complete chaos and they are doing it on purpose,” said Brané, who also toured the children’s wing of the Ursula processing facility with Bochenek.
Temperatures at Ursula are warmer and migrants get access to one shower, dry clothes and basic hygiene facilities such as a toothbrush and toothpaste with toilet facilities across the hangar. Kids get meals of rice, tortillas and beans and apples, said Bochenek, instead of bologna sandwiches they get in the “Freezer.”
While CBP is supposed to provide them mats to sleep on, Brané and Bochenek said there’s often a shortage that causes fights among the kids. Lights in the windowless facility stay on 24 hours a day there as well, prompting kids to ask Brane and Bochenek what time it was during their visit.
Brané said that kids can make one phone call, but often their parents are in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers where they don’t have access to a phone. In addition, younger kids often had no way of figuring out how to locate their parents.
Megan McKenna at Kids in Need of Defense, which represents unaccompanied migrant children in immigration proceedings, said that when her organization interviewed on 12-year-old boy about his experience a couple of weeks ago, he explained the physical abuse he endured in his home country, but began to cry when he talked about being separated from his parent in a CBP facility.
“This is very trauma-inducing,” she said. “Kids are describing very sudden separations and are not being told when they will see their parents again.”
Elana Schor contributed to this report.