Activists allege widespread mistreatment of sick, hungry migrant children
Lauren VillagranPublished 1:03 p.m. ET June 26, 2019 | Updated 6:21 p.m. ET June 26, 2019
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is calling on Congress to come up with a “unified package” to help fund the care of unaccompanied children being held at the southern border. (June 24) AP, AP
MEXICALI, Mexico – Alba Macario of Guatemala said her 2-year-old daughter, Suriana, nearly died while they were detained in a processing facility in Calexico, California, for more than a week in May.
“The immigration officials treat people as if they are animals,” Macario, 25, said Tuesday as she sat on the floor of a shelter in Mexicali, weeks after she was released by U.S. authorities and sent back to Mexico. “I saw how my daughter almost died in my arms, and they couldn’t do anything.”
Migrant families, activists and attorneys said this week that the abuse of child migrants is widespread in immigration detention. The outcry comes after attorneys reported children and infants were found sick and left in soiled clothing at a Border Patrol station southeast of El Paso in Clint, Texas.
Critics said children are put at risk at various other federal facilities, where they can go cold, hungry, thirsty and without adequate medical care. The Trump administration vowed to overhaul its policies after the deaths of seven migrant children in federal custody over the past year.
Amid rising anger nationally about how migrant children are treated, acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner John Sanders resigned Tuesday. President Donald Trump said he was “very concerned” about conditions at migrant detainee facilities, and though he did not ask Sanders to resign, he knew a change was coming at the top of the agency.
‘Everyone got sick’
Families held in U.S. custody who were interviewed by USA TODAY Network reporters said they worry the conditions could have lasting effects on their children.
While they were detained, there were so many women and children in the cell, Macario said, that she spent two nights trying in vain to sleep while standing and holding her daughter. Many children developed fevers and coughs, including her daughter, she said.
Esperanza Panameño had a similar experience in U.S. custody. The Salvadoran woman nursed her sick 7-month-old son back to health Tuesday at the Good Shepherd shelter for migrants in Ciudad Juárez, 3 miles away from the U.S. border, days after she was released and sent to Mexico.
She said she endured five harrowing days last week in Border Patrol detention in El Paso with her three children – a 12-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter and the baby boy. Their father, Carlos Salinas, was detained separately. Both parents described being held in cold, overcrowded cells with little or no access to water, basic hygiene or food.
“You couldn’t even walk for all the people on the floor,” said Panameño, 34, her baby coughing at her breast. “Everyone got sick.”
USA TODAY couldn’t confirm Panameño’s and Macario’s allegations, but their description of border detention conditions echoed accounts from other migrants and attorneys, as well as from the government’s own watchdog agencies, including the Office of the Inspector General.
“The overwhelming majority of children are asylum seekers,” said Elora Mukherjee, a New York-based immigration attorney who interviewed children detainees at the Clint Border Patrol station last week. “They are already fleeing from the worst trauma we can imagine. To be detained in conditions like this compounds the trauma.”
Elissa Steglich, a law professor at the University of Texas-Austin, was part of a separate team of attorneys that visited eight CBP detention facilities in South Texas in early June and interviewed dozens of migrant children and their parents. The detainees reported being fed the same meal of a lukewarm burrito and apple every day, spending 18 days locked up without seeing daylight, wearing the same clothes for days or weeks and having no access to a toothbrush or basic hygiene, she said.
Pepper Black, a volunteer for the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, said she and other volunteers hear similar stories repeatedly from migrants. Migrants go to the center after being released from federal custody to clean up from their long journey and make travel arrangements to their final U.S. destinations.
Last week, one female migrant recounted how no one would help when her baby threw up on her at a federal detention facility, Black said. Later, an official gave her a Mylar blanket to wrap the baby in, she said. “Over and over again, we hear these horrific stories,” Black said.
Lawyers say children kept in ‘cages’
Attorneys visited CBP detention facilities over the past 10 days under the Flores settlement agreement – which governs how detained immigrant children and families should be treated in custody. They passed on immigrants’ accounts of malnourished infants and children kept in “cages.”
Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School in New York City, was part of a team allowed to visit a facility. None of the children she spoke with had been allowed to shower or clean up since crossing the border, and many were in clothes stained with mucus or urine, she said. Many said they slept on concrete floors with no blankets.
“Never before have I seen conditions as degrading and inhumane as I witnessed in Clint, Texas,” she said. “The children were hungry, dirty, sick, scared.”
The detained children ranged in age from 4 months to 17 years old, and attorneys spoke to more than 60 of them. All had crossed the border with an accompanying adult – a grandmother, aunt or older sibling – and had been separated by federal immigration agents, she said. Some of the detainees were teenage mothers cradling infants.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, told USA TODAY she has hosted lawmakers in her El Paso district to see the conditions. When news broke about the conditions at the Clint facility, her staffers tried to visit and were initially refused entry, she said.
“The urgency of now and of today is children sleeping on concrete floors, children whose T-shirts are covered in mucus,” she said.
Under CBP policies, children are not supposed to be held in immigration custody for more than 72 hours. Mukherjee said some of the detained children she spoke with had been there for weeks.
Steglich, Mukherjee and the other attorneys weren’t allowed to tour the facilities. They were able to choose the names of children they wished to interview from a roster of detainees. The children met with the lawyers in interview rooms and described their living conditions at the facility.
Mukherjee said her team of attorneys tried to gain access to a section of the facility that was quarantined because of a flu outbreak. The lawyers were allowed to speak to only three children in quarantine via telephone as guards hovered nearby.
U.S. immigration authorities announced in December they would perform thorough medical checks on nearly every child in Border Patrol custody.
Macario said Suriana saw doctors twice while in detention, and both times they gave her medicine – a red syrup. As Suriana’s condition worsened, the little girl vomited repeatedly and stopped eating. They were detained eight days without bathing, Macario said.
Macario said her daughter’s illness progressed until the child laid on the ground and hardly moved. She said she scooped up the little girl and cradled her.
The women in the cramped cell banged on the door to get officials’ attention, Macario said. “The girl is dying!” the women called out.
A border agent arrived and saw the girl limp in Macario’s arms, she said.
“There’s nothing we can do now,” Macario said he told her. “That’s the answer they gave me.”
Panameño told USA TODAY that while in detention, she spoke with someone she described as “a lawyer or a social worker,” whom she told there was no food for babies. She said she and her children went four days without a toothbrush.
Miguel Garcia, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector, said the agency “can’t comment specifically on any one specific incident coming from an unknown source.” He said all children ages 17 and under receive a mandatory health screening by a nurse or doctor upon arrival and medical professionals are on site and available at all hours of the day.
Border Patrol agents detained 109,144 migrants in April, the highest monthly total since 2007, and the second straight month in which more than 100,000 migrants were taken into custody. The Texas border has been overwhelmed by waves of migrant families and unaccompanied children in recent months, many of whom seek asylum.
Border Patrol officials are supposed to turn over unaccompanied minors to the Department of Health and Human Services for care and transfer to sponsors in the USA.
Unaccompanied minors “are waiting too long in CBP facilities that are not designed to care for children,” HHS said in a statement this week.
Brian Hastings, the Border Patrol’s chief of law enforcement operations, contradicted reports about harsh conditions at detention facilities for children during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., asked about conditions in Border Patrol facilities in Clint, as well as in McAllen and El Paso, Texas, and a private facility in Homestead, Florida.
Hastings said all facilities across the southwestern border are provided a variety of hygiene products, despite the facilities not being built to house children. “We provide three meals – hot meals – a day and snacks are unlimited to those who want them,” Hastings said.
“You do understand that that is in direct contradiction with news reports that we have been reading and from what lawyers who have visited these children are telling us,” Hassan said.
Hastings suggested that the reports couldn’t be trusted. “Those are the plaintiffs’ attorneys,” Hastings said.
An unforgettable ‘nightmare’ for families
House lawmakers approved a $4.5 billion spending bill Tuesday night that would provide humanitarian assistance along the southern border. Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate debated how to move forward with their own spending bill. Trump threatened to veto the House version.
Macario, who seeks asylum and hopes to reunite with her husband in Memphis, Tennessee, has been waiting on the Mexican side of the border under the Migrant Protection Protocols program that requires some asylum applicants to wait in Mexico until their cases are heard in the USA. She had her first hearing in San Ysidro, California, on June 10 and said she plans to attend her second court date in August.
Macario said her daughter survived the immigration facility because of her prayers.
“For me,” she said, “it was a nightmare that I’m never going to forget.”
Contributing: Bart Jansen, USA TODAY, in Washington; Rick Jervis, USA TODAY, in McAllen, Texas; and Rebecca Plevin, Palm Springs Desert Sun, in Mexicali, Mexico
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