Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Say They're Being Held Inside An Overcrowded Facility Without Showers

"A lot of the children said to me that they hadn't seen 'el cielo,' the sky."

Attorneys who visited a Border Patrol tent facility in Texas for unaccompanied immigrant minors who recently crossed the border said some of the children were held for as many as eight days in crowded areas without showers or the ability to call their families.

Leecia Welch, senior director of child welfare for the National Center for Youth Law and another attorney with the organization, interviewed 20 children currently being detained by Border Patrol in Donna, Texas. All of the children had been in the custody of the border enforcement agency for at least five days, over the three-day limit they're are allowed to be in CBP custody under law.

"The bottom line is these children are being held in CBP for way longer than they're supposed to," Welch told BuzzFeed News.

CBP, the parent agency for Border Patrol, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Welch said she and her colleague, Neha Desai, weren't allowed by the Justice Department to tour the facility themselves, but were able to speak to children held at Donna tent site.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A 1997 court settlement known as the Flores agreement sets the standards under which immigrant children can be detained. As part of the agreement, attorneys are able to visit sites where the immigrant children are held to ensure they're not being held in violation of the standards. In 2019, visits to Border Patrol facilities revealed children were being held in dirty, overcrowded, and unsanitary conditions. Attorneys who visited a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, described children caring for infants and toddlers, a lack of access to soap and toothbrushes, and inadequate food, water, and sanitation.

The Biden administration said it is trying to move children out of Border Patrol custody to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which houses immigrant children, as quickly as possible despite the ever-increasing number of minors they're taking into custody.

As of this weekend, there were 4,200 unaccompanied immigrant children in Border Patrol custody, up from 3,700 on Thursday. Nearly 3,000 of them were over the three-day limit they can be in Border Patrol custody, according to government statistics reviewed by BuzzFeed News.

In response to a spike in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border overwhelming Border Patrol facilities, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has directed FEMA to help receive, shelter, and transport the children. Government officials also announced the opening of a new emergency intake center for unaccompanied immigrant children to help ease overcrowded conditions at Border Patrol stations.

Some of them held at the 185,000-square-foot facility told Welch they were only allowed to go outside every few days for about 20 minutes.

"A lot of the children said to me that they hadn't seen 'el cielo,' the sky," Welch said. "That the only time they saw the sun at all was when they took showers."

Some of the children said they had gone six days without a shower, while others said they had been able to shower, though not as frequently as they'd have wanted.

"A lot of these children had been on a dangerous journey for a long time, gone through a river, and they are particularly in need of an opportunity to take a shower," Welch said.

The children sleep on mats on the floor, and when there are not enough mats for everyone, some kids reported having to sleep on the bare floor or benches, Welch said. It's unclear how often this happened as the population of unaccompanied minors at the Donna tent facility changed often, Welch said.

Some children said they were hungry, but told Welch they were eating three meals a day and could get snacks if they asked.

The children, especially the younger ones, were very scared and confused about where they were and where they'd be going next, Welch said. Most of the children were upset about not being able to call family or unable to see a sibling they crossed the border with because kids of different genders are held in different areas.

"They were in the dark about the process," Welch said. "None of the children I talked to had had phone access."

Some of the children reported being told they could make a phone call just as they were about to leave the Border Patrol facility to go into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which houses immigrant children, Welch said.

"What really struck us was how many very young children are at Donna and how many of them have immediate family members in the US," Welch said. "There ought to be a way to have children released directly from Donna to family rather than be transported to ORR."

It would be a challenging process, Welch said, but it would also help with the capacity issue Border Patrol is facing when it comes to unaccompanied minors.

The suggestion that a speedier process should be established for immigrant children who cross the border and have parents already in the US has been discussed among immigration attorneys working with unaccompanied minors. Amy Maldonado, a volunteer attorney with Aldea — the People’s Justice Center, which offers free legal services to immigrant families detained by ICE in Pennsylvania, parents who go through ORR's process to sponsor their children are being screened as if they were foster parents.

"They ask inappropriate questions to parents we wouldn't ask in other contexts in the US," Maldonado told BuzzFeed News.

There should still be safeguards to ensure children aren't being placed in dangerous homes, Maldonado said, but the screening process should take place when the children are in Border Patrol custody.

"There needs to be an army of social workers at Border Patrol stations, working side by side with agents so we never see the abuses we saw at the Clint facility," Maldonado said. "It's something worth doing and something that will decrease the issues we're seeing now."

On Friday, in an attempt to move unaccompanied children out of government custody faster, the Biden administration said it had rescinded a Trump-era agreement that allowed HHS, the parent agency ORR, to hand over fingerprints and other information from sponsors to DHS. The agreement led to the arrest of sponsors who stepped forward to take unaccompanied minors from government custody. The agreement and subsequent arrests of these sponsors — mostly because they were undocumented — led to a chilling effect and decreased the pool of adults who could take custody of unaccompanied children.

Hamed Aleaziz contributed reporting.

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