HOUSTON – Hundreds of immigrant children and teenagers have been detained at a Border Patrol tent facility in packed conditions, with some sleeping on the floor because there aren't enough mats, according to nonprofit lawyers who conduct oversight of immigrant detention centers.
The lawyers interviewed more than a dozen children Thursday in Donna, Texas, where the Border Patrol is holding more than 1,000 people. Some of the youths told the lawyers they had been at the facility for a week or longer, despite the agency's three-day limit for detaining children. Many said they haven't been allowed to phone their parents or other relatives who may be wondering where they are.
Despite concerns about the coronavirus, the children are kept so closely together that they can touch the person next to them, the lawyers said. Some have to wait five days or more to shower, and there isn't always soap available, just shampoo, according to the lawyers.
President Joe Biden's administration denied the lawyers access to the tent facility. During the administration of former President Donald Trump, attorney visits to Border Patrol stations revealed severe problems, including dozens of children held at one rural station without adequate food, water, or soap.
“It is pretty surprising that the administration talks about the importance of transparency and then won’t let the attorneys for children set eyes on where they’re staying," said Leecia Welch of the National Center for Youth Law, one of the lawyers. "I find that very disappointing.”
Although none of the children reported situations as severe as during the Trump era, Welch said the lawyers “weren’t able to lay eyes on any of it to see for ourselves, so we’re just piecing together what they said.”
A 1997 court settlement known as the Flores agreement sets standards for government detention of immigrant children. Lawyers are entitled under Flores to conduct oversight of child detention. The Justice Department declined to comment Thursday on why the lawyers were denied access. The Biden administration has not responded to several requests from The Associated Press seeking access to the tent.
Government figures show a growing crisis as hundreds of children cross the border daily and are taken into custody. The Border Patrol currently has a record high of more than 3,000 children in detention, according to government data obtained by AP. That figure is rising almost daily.
More children are waiting longer in Border Patrol custody because long-term facilities operated by U.S. Health and Human Services have next to no capacity. Hundreds of children are being apprehended daily at far higher rates than HHS is releasing them to parents or sponsors. HHS currently takes an average of 37 days to release a child.
Biden has stopped the Trump-era practice of expelling immigrant children who cross the border alone, but maintained expulsions of immigrant families and single adults. While his administration has tried to deter immigrants from entering the U.S., many believe they have a better chance now. There have also been growing reports of parents sending their children across the border alone while they remain in Mexico or Central America.
Most Border Patrol stations were designed for short-term detention of adults, with cold, concrete cells with the lights always on. The Donna tent has clear partitions and mats for sleeping, according to images the government has released.
Six children died after being detained by border agents during the Trump administration. One died of the flu at the Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas, where minors are currently being held.
HHS has told its contractors to lift capacity restrictions enacted during the pandemic and expedite releases by paying for children’s airfare instead of charging sponsors.
But experts and lawyers who work with children say the government can do more.
While the majority of youths detained by the government are teenagers, both Border Patrol and HHS are detaining very young children who were in some cases separated from adult caretakers.
The Associated Press this week interviewed the mother of one 4-year-old girl from Guatemala who crossed the border March 5 with her aunt. Border authorities expelled the aunt and labeled the girl unaccompanied by a parent, placing her in the Donna tent.
The girl’s parents live in Maryland. Her mother told the AP that she didn’t know their daughter’s whereabouts until Sunday and didn’t speak to her until Monday. According to the mother, the girl was unable to speak in a nearly 20-minute phone call. The AP is not identifying the girl or her mother to protect the child’s privacy.
“She cried as if something was going on, as if she was scared,” the mother said this week. “I started crying when I heard her that way. It didn’t seem right to me.”
The parents asked for their daughter to be released to them directly but on Monday she was sent from South Texas to foster care in Michigan.
When she spoke to her mother Tuesday morning, the girl was no longer crying but still wasn’t able to speak.
“She didn’t say anything,” she said. “I tried everything I could, but nothing.”
Both Homeland Security and HHS initially said they could not directly release the child to her mother. But after the family's lawyers threatened to sue and following inquiries from AP, the government notified the girl’s mother Wednesday that they would expedite her release.
Amy Maldonado, a lawyer for the family, noted that the government’s often cumbersome processes and the inadequate spaces to hold children at the border predate the Biden administration.
“I don’t hold them accountable for the full history,” she said. “But this kid could have been released to her mom, and that is on this administration.”
Associated Press journalist Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.