One 9-year-old boy described feeling so cold his “bones hurt.”
Teenage mothers said they were denied milk, diapers, and medicine for sick babies.
A 17-year-old boy reported witnessing other children being tased as punishment.
These allegations are just a handful of what’s described in recent complaints obtained by VICE News and filed on behalf of thousands of migrant children detained last year by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP. The children’s names have been withheld in the complaints because they fear retaliation for speaking out.
The complaints, detailed here for the first time since being filed on April 6, allege migrant children in CBP custody are routinely denied medical care, served rotten or inedible food, and abused verbally and physically. The complaints also allege CBP routinely violates a court order that’s supposed to limit a kid’s time in CBP custody to 72 hours; instead they’re subjected to prolonged stays in frigid holding cells known as hieleras or ice boxes.
The Biden administration has said it’s preparing for another wave of migration with the pending rollback of Title 42, a Trump-era policy that has enabled border agents to turn away nearly everyone except unaccompanied children. While officials claim conditions are improving, the complaints paint a grim picture of what awaits those who attempt to cross, especially young people.
“We expect now that Title 42 is going away, this is just going to worsen,” said Carson Scott, an attorney with Immigrant Defenders Law Center. “Advocates have consistently been sounding the alarm bells. When we have waves of more children crossing the border, conditions get even worse.”
“When we have waves of more children crossing the border, conditions get even worse.”
Scott’s group was one of four nonprofit legal service providers that screened over 25,000 migrant children last year and filed the complaints with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. A spokesperson for CBP, an agency within DHS, declined to comment on the complaints, citing pending litigation.
One 14-year-old girl said she had just waded across the Rio Grande and was still damp from the river when she was allegedly left by CBP “handcuffed for approximately 24 hours without any food or water.” The girl, identified by the initials MJC, said she spent a total of 18 days shivering in a hielera, subsisting on bean burritos that tasted spoiled.
Unaccompanied migrant kids are supposed to spend a maximum of 72 hours in CBP custody before they’re handed off to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and placed in a licensed childcare facility. But the complaints allege most kids endure stays far longer.
When MJC asked for warm clothes, the complaint says CBP agents refused and told her if she was cold due to lack of clothing, “she should’ve thought about that before coming to the U.S.”
She was eventually allowed to see a doctor and diagnosed with a stomach bug and a broken arm that had been left untreated during her time in the hielera. The group representing MJC said she was eventually placed with a sponsor in the U.S. and remains in the country while her case plays out in immigration court.
The complaints allege treatment like MJC received is “common and widespread” among children in CBP custody.
“It is not limited to the conduct of a ‘bad apple’ employee within the agency,” the complaints say. “It is not limited to even a rogue or remote CBP outpost that lacks training and resources. The sheer number of children who have reported abuse, many of whom told us that they fear retaliation and were afraid to speak up, suggests that these examples are but a fraction of the actual total.”
Earlier this week, the Biden administration released its plan for handling the expected surge in arrivals at the border, including expanding detention capacity from 13,000 at the start of this year to hold “18,000 noncitizens in CBP custody at any given time,” as well as expediting processing to move more people through the system. Still, officials warned the preparations might not be enough.
“Despite these efforts, a significant increase in migrant encounters will substantially strain our system even further,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas wrote. “We are operating within a fundamentally broken immigration system that only Congress can fix.”
Since former President Donald Trump first imposed Title 42 at the start of the pandemic, in early 2020, most migrants—including asylum-seekers—have been blocked from crossing under the justification that they could spread COVID-19. President Joe Biden has kept the policy largely in place but carved out an exception for children who arrive at the border alone, with no adult relatives to care for them. More than 122,000 kids like that came to the U.S. in the 2021 fiscal year alone, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Another organization that filed a complaint with DHS, Americans for Immigrant Justice, provided exclusive data compiled from screenings of more than 2,300 children detained by CBP last year. Half of them described “cold temperatures” in holding facilities, nearly a third said they were held for longer than the 72 hours allowed under the law, and around 15 percent reported “lack of food/water.” Verbal or physical abuse was reported by 7 percent of the children.
“A number of them broke down crying,” said Maite Garcia, supervising attorney with Americans for Immigrant Justice. “It stays with people for years to come.”
The abuse described in the four complaints runs the gamut from CBP agents calling migrant kids obscenities in Spanish to threatening to beat kids with a nightstick, to even more extreme cases. One 16-year-old girl from Mexico, identified by the initials PAM, said the agents pulled her hair and nearly knocked her over while conducting a body search. She was pregnant at the time.
Once she arrived at the holding facility, PAM said, she and other children were “treated like animals,” and she was “ultimately hospitalized for two days because she began experiencing contractions and had a high-risk pregnancy.”
A 15-year-old girl named Debra described being grabbed by two male CBP agents and pinned facedown on the ground after she was detained crossing the border last October. She said she was barely able to breathe with an agent kneeling on her back. Bruises and abrasions from the encounter were still visible on Debra’s face and legs when attorneys interviewed her, the complaint says, and photos were submitted as evidence but have not been disclosed publicly.
“They did not clean her injuries or provide her with any bandages,” the complaint alleges.
One major problem, Garcia said, is that kids detained by CBP are not allowed to contact family members, and lawyers can typically speak with them only after they’re transferred to the custody of another agency.
“Right now it’s a dead zone,” Garcia said. “It creates a situation ripe for abuse and lack of oversight.”
Aiming to minimize migrant kids’ time in CBP custody, federal officials opened multiple “Emergency Intake Sites” or makeshift shelter facilities last year, including a sprawling tent city on the grounds of Fort Bliss, a military base near El Paso. Whistleblowers and child welfare advocates have described the Fort Bliss facility as a “hellhole” with miserable conditions that could further traumatize kids who have often already endured violence and hardship on their journey north.
Nearly three-quarters of more than 2,300 migrant children screened by the group Immigration Defenders Law Center had been housed in Emergency Intake Sites after CBP custody, according to data obtained exclusively by VICE News.
‘No place for a child’
Watchdogs have warned for years that CBP facilities are not suitable for children, and previous images of kids crowded into chain-link cages and wrapped in silver thermal blankets sparked widespread outrage. In 2020, the Government Accountability Office found that CBP had used money intended for detainees’ medical care to buy motorcycles and dirt bikes. The GAO also found that CBP “lacks reliable data on deaths” in agency custody.
Despite efforts at reforming CBP, it appears little has changed. And Democrats on Capitol Hill are once again on alert.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who chairs the House Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee, called for accountability after staff in her office received copies of the complaints obtained by VICE News.
“The mistreatment of children and families is a moral stain on our nation—period,” Lofgren said. “These reported conditions must never be permitted in U.S. government custody, particularly involving minors.”
Lofgren placed some of the blame on Trump for “preventing proper investigations and enacting zero-tolerance policies,” as did another prominent House Democrat, Rep. Joaquín Castro of Texas. He praised “the current administration’s work to build a more humane immigration system” while also calling for reform.
“The ongoing reports of abuse and human rights violations at CBP facilities are unacceptable,” Castro told VICE News. “These facilities are no place for a child, and they need to be safe for all adults who pass through them.”
CBP was created after 9/11 with the primary mission of arresting adult males who were crossing the border from Mexico to seek work, according to Adam Isaacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America. In the years since, migration has largely shifted to children and asylum-seekers, but CBP has not adapted, Isaacson said, and there has been no real urgency to improve long-dismal conditions in holding facilities.
“It’s not like Congress is lavishing money on CBP to feed migrants who cross the border illegally,” said Isaacson, who maintains a database of alleged incidents of CBP abuse. “The American people are stingy about this sort of thing. It’s why you have chain-link cages and mylar blankets. It's the experience of doing it as cheaply as humanly possible.”
One former CBP director, Gil Kerlikowske, who led the agency during a wave of child migration under the Obama administration, said even during his tenure nearly a decade ago the facilities at the border “were awful when it came to housing families or children.” But efforts to overhaul the system have largely stalled in Congress, he said.
“We need a whole different set of facilities along the border,” Kerlikowske added. “Facilities where there can be more adequate medical care, facilities that are meant to house families and children.”
In 2019, Congress earmarked funding to create the Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman, to improve oversight of DHS border facilities and investigate alleged abuse. The effort stalled under the Trump administration, but it’s now up and running.
Rep. Lucille Royal-Allard, a Democrat from California, who led the push for the new watchdog, expressed concern about the allegations in the complaints and noted that the funding bill passed by Congress in 2022 requires CBP holding facilities to “keep temperatures at comfortable levels,” among other basic standards.
“Even the best standards are not enough if they are not being followed by DHS personnel,” Royal-Allard told VICE News. “Allegations of abuse against migrants must be investigated quickly and thoroughly, and any confirmed allegations must result in appropriate consequences.”
“Even the best standards are not enough if they are not being followed by DHS personnel.”
The groups that filed the DHS complaints on behalf of migrant children made similar pleas for accountability and reimagining the way unaccompanied kids are processed when they arrive in the U.S. They want licensed child welfare to take the lead instead of law enforcement agents. But that change is unlikely to come soon, and in the meantime the lawyers have asked a federal judge to order the government to improve conditions.
Lawyers who represent child migrants have been in ongoing litigation with the Department of Justice over how kids are treated in CBP custody. Peter Schey, who leads the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, asked the federal judge overseeing the lawsuit to review the allegations in the complaints.
Schey said the federal government is working toward a new agreement that would add new safeguards to prevent CBP abuse, but it hasn’t been finalized yet.
“The settlement would provide the kind of protections that children in CBP custody need to avoid abuse and avoid inhumane conditions of detention,” Schey said. “It would be a historic change.”
Without that change, the groups that filed DHS complaints worry abuse will continue.
Three siblings, for example, allege that after they crossed the border last March, they were held in a windowless cell intended for around 25 kids but crammed with nearly 100, according to a document submitted by the organization Kids in Need of Defense. The boys Abel, 5, and Cameron, 6, and their 15-year-old sister, Mikayla, described receiving thin silver blankets that were not enough to keep warm and becoming “very sick after eating rice and tortillas that they believed were spoiled because they tasted sour.
When Mikayla asked for medicine or help for her little brothers, the complaint says the agents told her, “This is not a hospital, and we are not doctors. We cannot help you.”
Carly Sessions, an attorney at Kids in Need of Defense, said that when Mikayla was interviewed for the complaint, she was with a sponsor in the U.S. waiting for her immigration case to be decided in court. She had kept the blanket.
“She brought it out to show me,” Sessions said. “It was a memento she kept, not in a happy way but to her own resilience, of something she endured.”
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