At least nine infants under the age of 1, and some as young as 6 months, have been detained by US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement at a Texas detention center where they lack adequate medical care, immigrant advocates said in a complaint filed with the federal government on Thursday.
The complaint submitted by the American Immigration Council, American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, said there was an "an alarming increase" in infants and their mothers detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.
At least one infant has been detained for more than 20 days, the complaint said, a potential violation of the decades-old Flores settlement that stated children can't be held in custody for more than 20 days.
Katie Shepherd, national advocacy counsel for the American Immigration Council, said advocates at the Texas facility have seen more infants in recent weeks than in the past three years combined.
"It really is a significant increase, it's also remarkable and obviously disturbing," Shepherd told BuzzFeed News. "It's needless and completely nonsensical to have these babies in jail."
Until very recently, families with infants presenting themselves at the border would typically be released into the US after being processed by immigration authorities and allowed to make their case outside of detention, Shepherd said.
In a statement, ICE said it takes the health, safety, and welfare of those in custody very seriously. The agency said it spends more than $250 million annually on a "spectrum of healthcare services" to those in its custody.
"ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care," the agency said. "Comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in ICE custody."
While children typically must be released from US custody within 20 days, ICE said some families could be held longer because of individual circumstances, including those with final orders awaiting deportation and others subject to court orders that impact their ability to be removed.
"Typically, family units who come into ICE custody at a family residential center and who pass an initial credible fear interview are released from custody in fewer than 20 days," ICE said.
Health concerns alleged in the complaint include lengthy delays in receiving medical attention and a lack of appropriate follow-up treatment. The Texas facility housing the infants is located more than an hour away from San Antonio, the nearest metropolitan area where immigrants can receive specialized medical care, the complaint said.
"Infants have special needs and are particularly vulnerable given their young age," Shepherd said. "It's critical to have specialized care on site and available at all times."
The complaint said some mothers told legal service providers that their babies didn't feed well because of sudden changes in formula. Other mothers said their babies lost weight since arriving at the detention center, in addition to getting sick or showing behavioral or sleep challenges at the facility.
The complaint was sent to the Department of Homeland Security's Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Inspector General's office.