Doctor compares conditions at immigrant holding centers to ‘torture facilities’

From sleeping on concrete floors with the lights on 24 hours a day to no access to soap or basic hygiene, migrant children at two U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities face conditions one doctor described as comparable to “torture facilities.” The disturbing, first-hand account of the conditions were observed by lawyers and a board-certified physician in June visits to border patrol holding facilities in Clint, Texas, and McAllen, a city in the southern part of the state. The descriptions paint a bleak image of horrific conditions for children, the youngest of whom is 2- months old.

“The conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities,” the physician, Dolly Lucio Sevier, wrote in a medical declaration obtained by ABC News. Dr. Lucio Sevier, who works in private practice in the area, was granted access to the Ursula facility in McAllen, which is the largest CBP detention center in the country, after lawyers found out about a flu outbreak there that sent five infants to the neonatal intensive care unit.

After assessing 39 children under the age of 18, she described conditions for unaccompanied minors at the McAllen facility as including “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water or adequate food.” All the children who were seen showed evidence of trauma, Lucio Sevier reported, and the teens spoke of having no access to hand washing during their entire time in custody. She compared it to being “tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease.”

In an interview with ABC News, Lucio Sevier said the facility “felt worse than jail. It just felt, you know, lawless,” she said. “I mean, imagine your own children there. I can’t imagine my child being there and not being broken.”

Conditions for infants were even more appalling, according to the medical declaration. Many teen mothers in custody described not having the ability to wash their children’s bottle. And children who were older than 6 months were not provided age-appropriate meal options, including no pureed foods necessary for a child’s development, Lucio Sevier reported.

“To deny parents the ability to wash their infant’s bottles is unconscionable and could be considered intentional mental and emotional abuse,” she wrote.

The attorneys who represent the children are part of a team working under the Flores settlement agreement, a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that stipulated detention standards for unaccompanied minors, including being held for less than 72 hours and in the “least restrictive setting appropriate to the child’s age and special needs.” As part of that ruling, the lawyers, who are part of a class action lawsuit, represent all children in custody and, as such, are allowed to visit and interview them.

The alleged conditions documented at the facilities follow a Homeland Security inspector general report that found “dangerous overcrowding” and unsanitary conditions at a different CBP facility in El Paso, Texas, where hundreds more migrants were being housed than the center was designed to hold. The El Paso Del Norte Processing Center housed as many as 900 migrant detainees in June, despite having a recommended capacity for 125.

In April 2018, President Trump and his attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, enacted a “zero-tolerance” approach that called for stepped-up prosecutions of any adult crossing the border illegally. As a result, 2,700 children were separated from their families in a matter of weeks.

More than a year later, though, documents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — obtained by immigration rights groups and the Houston Chronicle through a Freedom of Information Act request — show family separations are still happening, even after a court ordered children to be reunited with their parents. The documents showed more than 700 children were separated from parents between last June and May, often with questionable legal justification.

The CBP, however, said in a statement it has limited resources and is leveraging all of them “to provide the best care possible to those in our custody, especially children. As [Department of Homeland Security] and CBP leadership have noted numerous times, our short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations and we urgently need additional humani-tarian funding to manage this crisis,” the statement said.

A U.S. government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that transferring the children to the custody of the Health and Human Services department is a “top CBP priority.”

As for the conditions at detention facilities, lawyers for the Trump administration in June argued that providing basic neces-sities, like soap, was not a requirement of the Flores agreement. Three judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals repeatedly asked the lawyers if they were arguing that “safe and sanitary” did not include the ability to sleep soundly or use soap.

At the Clint facility, conditions were just as bad as they were at the McAllen site, the lawyers representing the children said. All of the detainees had been in custody longer than the 72 hours permitted for unaccompanied minors under the Flores agreement. The lengths of stay ranged from 4 days to 24 days.

“We wanted to try and find out what was happening down there and why these children were dying at a rate that we’ve never seen before,” said Warren Binford, a law professor at Willamette University who helped interview the children at the Clint border patrol facility. On the day they arrived, they witnessed the Clint facility was home to 351 children. Like the McAllen facility, many were held for three weeks or longer. One lawyer said many children had parents living in the U.S. with whom they wanted to be reunited; others said they had been separated from their parents at the border.

At the Clint facility, Binford described conditions that included infants and toddlers sleeping on concrete floors, a lice outbreak that led to guards providing two lice combs to 20 children to “work it out,” guards punishing the children by taking away sleeping mats and blankets, and guards creating a “child boss” to help keep the other kids in line by rewarding them with extra food.

She said one of the most striking examples was a 2-year-old brought to her with no diaper and being cared for by several other little girls. “When I asked where his diapers were and she looked down and said, ‘He doesn’t need them,’ and then he immediately peed in his pants right there on the conference chair and started crying,” Binford said.

Following the disturbing reports, most of the children were removed from the Border Patrol facility near El Paso. It was unclear where all the children had been moved, but Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar said some were sent to a different facility in El Paso.

– edited from ABC News, June 23, 2019
PeaceMeal, July/August 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)