Editor’s Note: Clara Long is Senior Researcher in the US Program at Human Rights Watch and Nicole Austin-Hillery is Executive Director of the US program. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers. View more opinion at CNN.
A 14-year old told us she was taking care of a 4-year old who had been placed in her cell with no relatives. “I take her to the bathroom, give her my extra food if she is hungry, and tell people to leave her alone if they are bothering her,” she said.
She was just one of the children we talked with last week as part of a team of lawyers and doctors monitoring conditions for children in US border facilities. We have been speaking out urgently, since then, about the devastating and abusive circumstances we’ve found. The Trump administration claims it needs even more detention facilities to address the issue, but policy makers and the public should not be fooled into believing this is the answer.
The situation we found is unacceptable. US Border Patrol is holding many children, including some who are much too young to take care of themselves, in jail-like border facilities for weeks at a time without contact with family members, regular access to showers, clean clothes, toothbrushes, or proper beds. Many are sick. Many, including children as young as 2 or 3, have been separated from adult caretakers without any provisions for their care besides the unrelated older children also being held in detention.
We spoke with an 11-year-old caring for his toddler brother. Both were fending for themselves in a cell with dozens of other children. The little one was quiet with matted hair, a hacking cough, muddy pants and eyes that fluttered closed with fatigue. As we interviewed the two brothers, he fell asleep on two office chairs drawn together, probably the most comfortable bed he had used in weeks. They had been separated from an 18-year-old uncle and sent to the Clint Border Patrol Station. When we met them, they had been there three weeks and counting.
“Sometimes when we ask, we are told we will be here for months,” said one 14-year-old who had also been at Clint for three weeks.
(Update: On June 24, the Office of Refugee Resettlement said it identified space in its network of child shelters and detention centers for 249 of the children at the border patrol station we visited in Clint, Texas, and that those children should be transferred by Tuesday, June 25. More children may remain in Border Patrol custody across the border.)
Some of the children we spoke with were sleeping on concrete floors and eating the same unpalatable and unhealthy food for close to a month: instant oatmeal, instant soup and a previously-frozen burrito. Children should spend no more than a few hours in short-term border jails to be processed and US-law limits their detention under typical circumstances to 72 hours.
The government has been unapologetic about conditions. A Department of Justice lawyer, Sarah Fabian, told judges in the Ninth Circuit last week that the government’s obligation to provide “safe and sanitary” conditions for child migrants does not require it to provide children with hygiene items such as soap or toothbrushes and it can have them sleep on concrete floors in cold, overcrowded cells.
In late May, acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kevin McAleenan told reporters that the agency had 2,350 unaccompanied children in its custody awaiting placement in detention centers and shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The Trump administration wants more money to build more child detention centers to hold even more children, citing these relatively higher numbers of border arrivals. It is urging Congress’ swift approval of the Department of Homeland Security’s supplemental budget request for this purpose.
But that ask glosses over the fact that more children are in immigration custody because over the last several years the government has slowed down the rate at which children are reunified with their families. The government has sought to use children in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities as bait to arrest and deport the family members who come forward to care for them, according to a report by advocacy groups The Women’s Refugee Commission and the National Immigrant Justice Center.
Based on our interviews, officials at the border seem to be making no effort to release children to caregivers– many have parents in the US – rather than holding them for weeks in overcrowded cells at the border, incommunicado from their desperate loved ones. By holding and then transferring them down the line to ORR facilities, the government is turning children into pawns for immigration enforcement.
A second-grader we interviewed entered the room silently but burst into tears when we asked who she traveled with to the US. “My aunt,” she said, with a keening cry. A bracelet on her wrist had the words “US parent” and a phone number written in permanent marker. We called the number on the spot and found out that no one had informed her desperate parents where she was being held. Some of the most emotional moments of our visit came witnessing children speak for the first time with their parents on an attorney’s phone.
The conditions we saw this week match previous Human Rights Watch findings on the harms children face in Border Patrol detention. But now it’s going on for weeks instead of days. Congress should take action – not by approving more money for detention – but by requiring immigration agencies to cease separating children from family members unless that’s in the interest of the child, release and reunify children as soon as possible and cease using them as bait to arrest family members.
These unconscionable abuses against children are not what America should stand for.