Leecia Welch, senior director of child welfare for the National Center for Youth Law and another attorney with the organization, interviewed 20 children currently being detained by Border Patrol in Donna, Texas. All of the children had been in the custody of the border enforcement agency for at least five days, over the three-day limit they’re are allowed to be in CBP custody under law.
“The bottom line is these children are being held in CBP for way longer than they’re supposed to,” Welch told BuzzFeed News.
CBP, the parent agency for Border Patrol, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Welch said she and her colleague, Neha Desai, weren’t allowed by the Justice Department to tour the facility themselves, but were able to speak to children held at Donna tent site.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A 1997 court settlement known as the Flores agreement sets the standards under which immigrant children can be detained. As part of the agreement, attorneys are able to visit sites where the immigrant children are held to ensure they’re not being held in violation of the standards. In 2019, visits to Border Patrol facilities revealed children were being held in dirty, overcrowded, and unsanitary conditions.
The Biden administration said it is trying to move children out of Border Patrol custody to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which houses immigrant children, as quickly as possible despite the ever increasing number of minors they’re taking into custody.
In response to a spike in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border overwhelming Border Patrol facilities, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has directed FEMA to help receive, shelter, and transport the children. Government officials also announced the opening of a new emergency intake center for unaccompanied immigrant children to help ease overcrowded conditions at Border Patrol stations.
Some of them held at the 185,000-square-foot facility, told Welch they were only allowed to go outside every few days for about 20 minutes.
“A lot of the children said to me that they hadn’t seen ‘el cielo,’ the sky,” Welch said. “That the only time they saw the sun at all was when they took showers.”
Some of the children said they had gone six days without a shower, while others said they had been able to shower, though not as frequently as they’d have wanted.
“A lot of these children had been on a dangerous journey for a long time, gone through a river, and they are particularly in need of an opportunity to take a shower,” Welch said.
The children sleep on mats on the floor, and when there’s not enough mats for everyone, some kids reported having to sleep on the bare floor or benches, Welch said. It’s unclear how often this happened as the population of unaccompanied minors at the Donna tent facility changed often, Welch said.
Some children said they were hungry, but told Welch they were eating three meals a day and could get snacks if they asked.
“They were in the dark about the process,” Welch said. “None of the children I talked to had had phone access.”
Some of the children reported being told they could make a phone call just as they were about to leave the Border Patrol facility to go into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which houses immigrant children, Welch said.
“What really struck us was how many very young children are at Donna and how many of them have immediate family members in the US,” Welch said. “There ought to be a way to have children released directly from Donna to family rather than be transported to ORR.”
It would be a challenging process, Welch said, but it would also help with the capacity issue Border Patrol is facing when it comes to unaccompanied minors.
On Friday, the Biden administration said it had rescinded a Trump-era agreement that allowed HHS, the parent agency ORR, to hand over fingerprints and other information from sponsors to DHS. The agreement led to the arrest of sponsors who stepped forward to take unaccompanied minors from government custody. The agreement and subsequent arrests of these sponsors — mostly because they were undocumented — led to a chilling effect and decreased the pool of adults who could take custody of unaccompanied children.
Hamed Aleaziz contributed reporting.