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Detained Immigrant Teens Feel Desperate And Hopeless At Emergency Shelters, Attorneys Say

"These sites are unsafe, unsanitary, and damaging to children’s physical and mental wellbeing,” a senior director at the National Center for Youth Law said.

Last updated on August 10, 2021, at 3:10 p.m. ET

Posted on August 9, 2021, at 9:13 p.m. ET

Eric Gay / AP

An immigrant family from Venezuela move to a Border Patrol transport vehicle after they and others turned themselves in after crossing the border in Del Rio, Texas.

Attorneys representing immigrant children detained by the US asked a judge on Monday to release them from emergency shelters where they say they feel imprisoned, desperate, and hopeless.

In a 31-page filing, lawyers asked US District Judge Dolly Gee, who oversees a 1997 court settlement that sets the standard for the conditions the US can detain immigrant children, to order the Biden administration to expedite the release of these minors from the four emergency shelters it currently has children in.

The motion to enforce the Flores Settlement Agreement focuses on Fort Bliss, an army base near El Paso, and a former camp for oil workers in Pecos, Texas, where children reported being held in dirty conditions, served raw food, and inadequate access to medical care. As of July 21, 4,578 children were detained at the emergency intake sites.

Leecia Welch, senior director of legal advocacy and child welfare at the National Center for Youth Law, and one of the attorneys who filed Monday's motion, said her organization interviewed more than 180 children at emergency intake sites.

"Each time we visit Fort Bliss and Pecos we speak to children who have been relegated to unacceptable conditions for months," Welch said in a statement. "These sites are unsafe, unsanitary, and damaging to children’s physical and mental wellbeing. We hope our motion results in immediate improvements to alleviate children’s suffering at these sites.”

The Department of Health and Human Services started to open emergency shelters in March as the number of immigrant children who crossed the border without their parents quickly outpaced the number of beds available at shelters. The Biden administration scrambled to increase its shelter capacity in an effort to cut the number of children who were held for days at Border Patrol jail-like facilities.

An HHS spokesperson said the agency takes the responsibility of caring for unaccompanied immigrant children very seriously. At both Ft. Bliss and the Pecos, Texas site, children receive educational and recreational activities, such as art, and indoor and outdoor athletics.

"Children at both sites have access to medical treatment, laundry service, they can call their family, they meet weekly with case managers, can access legal services and meet with mental and behavioral health counselors," an HHS spokesperson said. "We have increased case management services to unite children safely and expeditiously with family, while we continue to improve and streamline this process."

BuzzFeed News previously reported on a whistleblower complaint filed by two government employees sent to Fort Bliss, who said children were housed in overcrowded conditions and that mismanagement resulted in significant mental health issues among the children, as well as delays in being released to family or friends.

Children at the Fort Bliss and former oil camp said they didn't have enough clean clothes and underwear, in Monday's filing. At the same two facilities, immigrant children said they were hungry and were being "served raw chicken and other inedible food."

Attorneys said children at Fort Bliss had to proactively refer themselves for mental health services. A 16-year-old from El Salvador said because they suffer from anxiety attacks, they're able to see a therapist, but not everyone is.

"I know that other youth want to speak with someone when they are feeling sad, but they may have to wait up to three days to meet with the therapist," the teen said in the motion. "I have had about 3 or 4 anxiety attacks since I have been here. I have been feeling particularly anxious ever since I learned that my case was approved, but I have not left yet."

Ryan Matlow, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, submitted a court declaration in support of the motion to enforce after visiting Fort Bliss.

"It is my professional opinion that large-scale congregate care facilities such as Fort Bliss are inappropriate for housing unaccompanied immigrant children for extended periods of time... due to the risk of causing clinically significant psychological harm," Matlow said.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.