“They never saw the sun”: lawyers describe overcrowded conditions for children in border custody



An “astounding number” of migrant children detained at a Border Patrol facility in South Texas are facing overcrowded conditions, some of which have been detained for seven days. This is what lawyers they interviewed Thursday told CBS News.

Neha Desai, an attorney who represents immigrant youth in US government custody, said she interviewed children who said they were hungry and minors who only showered once in seven days.

“Some of the boys said conditions were so crowded that they took turns sleeping on the floor,” Desai added, citing interviews with nearly a dozen unaccompanied migrant children held at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in Donna. Texas.

As of March 2, the Donna Complex had more than 1,800 people – 729% of its pandemic-era capacity, which is rated for 250 migrants, according to an internal CBSP document reviewed by CBS News.

Most minors reported having showered only once in US custody, despite being held for more than five days, according to Desai. Some said they took two showers.

“They all said they wanted to shower more and were told they couldn’t,” Desai said.

US Customs and Border Protection
An entrance to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility that houses unaccompanied migrant children in Donna, Texas.

United States Customs and Border Protection

As attorneys representing migrant children in federal litigation over the landmark Flores Settlement Agreement, Desai and her colleagues at the National Center for Youth Law are empowered to interview minors in U.S. immigration detention.

Desai said she and one of her colleagues could only interview some of the hundreds of migrant children detained at the Donna Facility, a large complex of tents used to temporarily detain unaccompanied minors and families with children. The lawyers said CBP refused to allow them to tour the facility.

The Donna facility, which opened last month, has been overloaded for weeks, CBP recently confirmed in a lawsuit in federal court. The facility had 854 children as of Feb.21 and nearly 700 children two days earlier, according to court records, which also found that social distancing “was not always observable given the increasing number of people incarcerated”.

The children surveyed included a young teen in US custody with her baby and an 8-year-old unaccompanied girl. Some of the children traveling with older siblings were even younger, Desai said.

“There were an amazing number of very young children,” she said.

Many of the children were visibly emotional, Desai said, particularly siblings of different sexes who had been separated and placed in different areas of the Donna facility. The young inmates, Desai said, also reported not having access to outside activities. She said the children told her “how they never saw the sun”.

“One of them said he could only see the sun while showering because you can see the sun through the window,” Desai said, noting that the children raised this issue during their interviews outside the CBP facility.

The minors Desai spoke to also said they had been refused phone calls to communicate with family members. “They were crying hysterically and wanted to speak to their family,” she said.

“We appreciate the extraordinary challenge the government will face in undoing the damage caused by the previous administration’s immigration policy,” Desai said. “Even so, it is deeply worrying to see young children for days in facilities who cannot shower, call their families, or see the sunlight.”

The Department of Homeland Security said border guards are working to refer “swift and efficient” unaccompanied minors to the US refugee agency, which has been tasked by Congress with housing these children.

“Combating the influx of unaccompanied children crossing our southwest border is a major priority of this government and the DHS,” the department said in a statement to CBS News. “It requires a government coordinated and sustained response.”

An aerial view of the facility in Donna, Texas.

United States Customs and Border Protection

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, acting CBP commissioner Troy Miller said his agency was “struggling” with the number of migrant families and children in their care. But he said CBP gives children access to medical contractors, welfare checks, blankets, baby food, hot meals and showers at least every 48 hours.

“Many of us, maybe most of us, are parents,” Miller said. “I have a 6-year-old myself and these border guards go above and beyond to look after the children every day.”

In an interview with Univision’s Jorge Ramos, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he saw “too many children” when he visited the Donna facility earlier this month. But he applauded the border guards for their “heroism” and said the children were in good hands.

“There are no children in cages in the US,” Mayorkas said, according to a transcript of the interview.

A sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied minors in US custody along the southern border, the government’s ability to process them has been severely strained, creating significant humanitarian and logistical challenges for the Biden government.

Nearly 9,500 unaccompanied children were taken into US border custody in February – a 21-month high, according to government figures.

According to government figures from CBS News, more than 7,000 of these minors have been placed in emergency shelters, which are overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for housing until a sponsor, usually a family member in the United States, is found.

With nearly 9,000 children currently in custody, the refugee agency is making efforts to expand their bedroom, which has been limited by social distancing measures. To accommodate more children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxed those restrictions last week, citing “exceptional circumstances”.

The lack of sleeping quarters and the upward trend of unaccompanied minors being held in U.S. custody have resulted in the congestion of immigrant minors in Border Patrol facilities, most of which are built to hold adult men temporarily.

As of earlier this week, more than 3,200 unaccompanied children were stuck in Border Patrol facilities, according to CBS News’ CBP documents. Almost 1,400 of the children were detained after 72 hours; the legal border guards have to hand over unaccompanied minors to the refugee office.

Desai said the children she interviewed Thursday expressed a similar sentiment about their time in custody by the border police.

“Several children said the exact same phrase, ‘The only time I get up is throw away trash or go to the bathroom,'” she said.


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