A “listless” prematurely born 1-month-old girl and her 17-year-old Guatemalan mother detained in federal custody were discovered this week by attorneys who visited a US Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, Texas.
The attorneys, who were shocked by their discovery, obtained access to the Border Patrol processing center known as Ursula as part of a decadeslong settlement over the care of children in government custody, sending them scrambling to obtain medical care and the release of the mother and the child. They said the child was lethargic, cold, and not eating.
The mother and baby, who were not identified, were taken into Border Patrol custody after crossing into the US on June 4 and have been at Ursula since June 7, according to Hope Frye, an immigration attorney who visited the center this week under the rules of the 1997 consent decree known as the Flores Settlement. Frye was also a part of the legal team involved in the settlement.
Under federal law, minors are required to be released from Border Patrol custody within 72 hours to officials in the Office of Refugee Resettlement after they are determined to be unaccompanied. Both the 17-year-old mother and her 1-month-old baby are considered unaccompanied minors.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, called Department of Homeland Security officials Thursday about the case. On Thursday, nine days after attorneys said the mother was taken into Border Patrol custody, the pair were set to be released to an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter, Frye was told.
“No child should ever go into Border Patrol custody — they are not equipped to handle it. It was never their mission. Congress needs to do something,” said Frye. The attorney said she held the baby for an hour and spoke with the mother on multiple occasions. “I don’t know why it took so long. I don’t know. They would still be detained if we hadn’t come across her in the Flores interview. No question in my mind.”
The case comes as the Trump administration continues to confront the record number of immigrant families and unaccompanied children crossing the border. DHS acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan has repeatedly said that Border Patrol facilities were never intended to handle the massive influx of families and children. Since December, four minors have died in federal custody.
The mother, who had given birth to the baby in Mexico in an emergency cesarean section surgery, was in a wheelchair and unable to walk without pain. After being taken into Border Patrol custody, she was transported to an emergency room and later discharged, Frye said.
The attorney believes both the baby and the mother should be hospitalized immediately due to their health issues.
The 17-year-old mother’s case highlights a wider problem of teenage mothers spending long periods of time in Border Patrol custody that she discovered this week, the Northern California–based attorney said.
She said she came across other teenage mothers of young children who have remained in Border Patrol custody for long periods of time, including a 17-year-old pregnant mother of a 2-year-old child, not receiving proper medical treatment, and being exposed to illnesses. Another minor, a 16-year-old mother of a nearly 1-year-old baby, had been in custody for around three weeks.
The mothers who spoke with Frye described an overcrowded facility where detainees sit on the floor inside cages — reporters who visited the center last year described it as metal wire akin to batting cages — in cold temperatures.
Some children are sick with the flu, Frye said. The attorney herself came down with the virus after spending time in the processing center this week.
“This collapsed me. I can’t cry when I’m in visits but I have had to turn around on several occasions and hold myself back. It breaks my heart. It makes me physically sick. It is really horrifying,” she said.
McAleenan has repeatedly said there is a crisis with regard to the number of immigrants at the southern border — and a changing dynamic that it’s mostly families crossing, as opposed to the single adults apprehended in past years. The administration has long complained that court orders that restrict the amount of time families can be held together in detention are a driver of the increase in immigration.
Office of Refugee Resettlement officials have said they were on track to detain the most children in its history as it struggles to cope with limited money that could leave them without funding unless Congress steps in.