Attorneys who recently visited Border Patrol stations, ports of entry and family detention centers filed a scathing report this week alleging that the federal government is not adequately caring for minors in its custody.
Children and their parents interviewed by the attorneys described cramped cells where there wasn’t enough space or bedding to sleep, cold or frozen food and a lack of access to basic hygiene products like toothbrushes and soap.
The interviews were part of monitoring done through a court settlement called the Flores agreement that governs how long migrant children may be held in custody and under what conditions. After a San Diego federal judge ordered the Trump administration last month to reunite families separated at the border, the government tried to renegotiate the settlement to be able to hold children longer than 20 days, as the Flores agreement stipulates. The judge in the Flores case rejected the government’s argument.
In more than 1,000 pages of declarations with first-hand testimony from more than 200 parents and children held in custody in California, Texas and other states, the filing paints a vivid picture of the migrants’ first moments in the U.S.
Alejandra, a 31-year-old woman from Mexico, said she asked for asylum with her four children at the San Ysidro port of entry in early July.
Her family was taken into custody, but didn’t even receive a mat to sleep on, she told an attorney interviewing her, because there was no room.
“On the first night, my daughter wet herself while she was sleeping because there were so many people on the floor that you would have to walk over people to get to the toilet,” Alejandra said. “She couldn’t step over everyone.”
She told the attorney that the toilets didn’t have doors and there was no soap or paper towels.
She said she fled her home in Mexico because she was afraid her teenage daughter would be kidnapped at school.
The original complaint in the Flores lawsuit was filed in 1985, and the settlement has been in place since 1997. It allows attorneys to periodically inspect the conditions that children are held in. This is not the first time that attorneys representing the migrant children have said the government is not cooperating with the agreement.
Under the Obama administration, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District of California ruled in 2015 that the government had breached the agreement in a number of ways including allowing rooms that were cold and overcrowded as well as providing inadequate nutrition and hygiene.
“As a matter of policy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not comment on pending litigation,” said Daniel Hetlage, spokesman for the agency, which is responsible for people in custody at ports of entry and Border Patrol stations. “However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations. CBP takes all allegations seriously, and investigates all formal complaints.”
A June filing from a customs official responsible for monitoring detention conditions for minors said that the agency was complying with the agreement’s requirements. The official, Henry Moak Jr., said he visited eight sites unannounced and interviewed 38 children.
“What I learned during the unannounced visits confirmed that agents and officers in the field execute their responsibilities professionally and in a manner consistent with the Agreement,” Moak wrote.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) criticized the Trump administration’s handling of arriving children based on the recent court document’s findings. She said that she would be sending staff this week to inspect Customs and Border Protection facilities in El Centro.
“We have an obligation to treat children and families humanely,” Feinstein said. “We can’t look past the connection between the president’s hateful words about immigrants ‘infesting’ America and ‘sending them the hell back to their country’ and the actions his administration is taking to hold them in deplorable conditions.”
In one example described in the report, a minor named Floridalma was caught crossing the border at the end of June. She was held with her 3-year-old son in a Border Patrol facility in El Centro.
She described a small room crowded with four mothers and four children.
“We have two mattresses to share,” she said. “We sleep with our heads on the mattresses and our bodies on the cement floor because there are only two mattresses for eight people.”
Anet, a 15-year old girl held in El Centro said in her room, 18 people had three mattresses to split between them.
Brandon, a 14-year-old boy from Guatemala who came with his mother and two brothers to the San Ysidro port of entry in early July to ask for asylum, told the attorney who interviewed him about how cold the cell was — people held there often call it the “hielera,” or icebox.
“I have to use my blanket all of the time,” he told the attorney. “I would like another blanket, but I am not comfortable asking for one.”
He said he hadn’t been able to brush his teeth or wash himself since he arrived.
“There is no soap in my room and no towels,” he said. “I had a toothbrush when I came here, but they took it away when I got to the facility.”
Brandon said he fled with his family because someone shot five bullets into their house after his father quit working for the local sheriff, upsetting the local official.
A Salvadoran woman named Lidia who brought her 4-year-old son to the Texas border said that they received frozen sandwiches that they couldn’t eat while they were in custody.
“My son was crying from hunger,” she told the attorney interviewing her.
Attorneys recently visited family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania as well as ports of entry and Border Patrol holding facilities in California, New Mexico and Arizona.
Led by the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, attorneys on Monday called the government’s recent actions a “full-scale assault” on the settlement.
The filing calls for the court to appoint a special monitor to ensure that immigration officials comply with the agreement.
“Defendants’ unsafe treatment of children continues unabated,” the filing says. “Rather than signaling a willingness to end their breach of the Agreement, Defendants have doubled down on their breach seemingly for no other reason than that’s what the President wants.”
The filing alleges that the federal government uses “surges” of arrivals as an excuse not to follow the agreement. It calls on the government to provide a plan for what to do when migration spikes again.
“Unfortunately, recent chaotic events indicate no real plan may exist,” the filing says.
Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.