Children packed into Border Patrol tent for days on end

Nomaan Merchant

HOUSTON (AP) — 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 centres.

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.

United States (US) President Joe Biden’s administration denied the lawyers access to the tent facility.

US Border Patrol agents hold a news conference prior to a media tour of a new US Customs and Border Protection temporary facility. PHOTO: AP

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 one of the lawyers, Leecia Welch. “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 AP 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 US Health and Human Services (HHS)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 US, 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.

AP this week interviewed the mother of one four-year-old girl from Guatemala who crossed the border March 5 with her aunt. Border authorities expelled the aunt and labelled the girl unaccompanied by a parent, placing her in the Donna tent.