The Trump administration is desperately trying to run damage control after lawyers visited a Texas Border Patrol facility and described filthy children who had not been allowed to bathe or brush their teeth, and toddlers without diapers or caregivers.
The descriptions of horrific conditions were met with public and political outrage. On Monday, immigration officials removed about 250 children from the facility in Clint, Texas. Some were transferred to Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters, while others were sent to a temporary tent facility in El Paso.
Then on Tuesday, in an abrupt turn of events, the government moved 100 children back to the Clint facility, claiming that overcrowding had been alleviated.
The government wants to appear like it’s solving the issue of inhumane treatment at border facilities by shuffling children from one place to another. But this latest development exposes a central problem: No Border Patrol stations are fit for children, and what happened at the Clint facility is not an isolated incident.
“CBP custody is inappropriate and abusive for children,” said Clara Long, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who recently interviewed kids at the Clint center.
She said children should not be kept at any of the more than 70 facilities along the border and that moving them around amounts to nothing more than “shuffling deck chairs.” And it does nothing to address the fact that migrants keep coming to the border because they are fleeing violence and abject poverty in their home countries.
CBP officials told HuffPost that the agency “continues to utilize all available resources to prioritize and care for children in our custody and facilitate their expeditious transfer to HHS custody.”
But kids aren’t safe in border facilities ― whether they’re unaccompanied minors or children with their parents. Last year, lawyers interviewed children who described being physically abused by guards in Border Patrol stations and drinking toilet water to stay hydrated and being fed frozen food. These conditions can have dire consequences: Since December, five children have died in Border Patrol custody, in a few cases after catching the flu and not being given adequate access to medical care.
While Clint has been getting a lot of media attention, it’s no different from the conditions in other Border Patrol facilities, said Hope Frye, an immigration and human rights lawyer.
Frye and a group of lawyers recently visited a facility in McAllen, Texas, where they saw a premature baby wrapped in a dirty towel and unresponsive, and five toddlers who were so sick and neglected that her team forced the government to send them to a hospital. Frye said there was a flu outbreak in the facility and that children were packed into cages, sleeping on concrete, and they didn’t have access to adequate food.
“It’s deliberate, systemic disregard for human life,” she said. “It’s sinister, and it’s depraved.”
While the government wants people to believe it’s finding solutions by moving children in and out of border patrol facilities, Frye says these actions are nothing more than hollow optics.
“If you’re just shuffling kids around, you aren’t addressing any problem,” she said. “You don’t lift anyone out of the morass that has been created by neglect.”
Ideally, children should not be detained by Border Patrol for any length of time and should instead be sent directly to an ORR shelter where they can start the process of being reunified with sponsors, immigration lawyers told HuffPost. Yet, although unaccompanied children are supposed to be held for only 72 hours in border facilities, according to a court agreement outlining their rights in detention, lawyers say some kids are being detained for up to three weeks.
And so long as the Trump administration keeps them in detention, Frye said, they need to have doctors and public health officials at every Border Patrol station to monitor the spread of disease.
“You have a vigorous screening of every child,” she said. “Not this sort of give them a Tylenol and one dose of Tamiflu and send them back to the concrete.”
Some experts have called for child welfare experts to be on hand at all facilities holding children. The centers also need pediatricians who are trained to spot the specific ways illnesses present in children, and who understand that if their symptoms go untreated the results can be fatal, Dr. Julie Linton told HuffPost in a previous interview.
The government claims that it is overwhelmed by the record number of immigrant families crossing the border and that Border Patrol stations are unfit for children because they were originally designed to hold single adult males. The agency is currently holding 1,000 children, according to CBP officials, down from 2,600 last week.
Trump said Tuesday that Democrats are to blame for the horrific conditions inside Border Patrol facilities because they refuse to pass laws that would reduce the number of migrants crossing the border.
Late Tuesday evening, the House passed a much-disputed emergency funding package that would provide $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid to the border, but White House advisers have already threatened to veto the bill because it would weaken border security and set strict standards on the treatment of detained children. The Senate is expected to vote on a similar measure this week, which would allocate more money toward border enforcement.
Long said there are structural changes this administration could make if it were interested in treating immigrant children more humanely. She said one of the biggest reasons Border Patrol stations are holding children for more than 72 hours is because there isn’t enough space at the ORR shelters that are supposed to take in unaccompanied minors. Those detention centers are overcrowded in part because the government is separating kids from their primary caretakers who aren’t their parents, rather than detaining them as family units.
The government has also changed the vetting process for releasing minors to sponsors, which has resulted in children spending an average of 66 days and in some cases up to six months waiting to be reunited with relatives willing to care for them.
Some children are being detained for months because of inefficient case management issues, in which their cases aren’t even opened for 50 days or their sponsors are rejected without explanation, lawyers said.
Frye argued the government wants to maintain a chaotic system for political gain and so that corporations can profit off of running detention facilities.
“I think there is a desire to make the [anti-immigrant] political rhetoric a reality,” she said. “It’s a dehumanization process. If you lock kids up, you paint the picture you want.”