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Flu, Lice, and Open Toilets: What Attorneys Saw at Migrant Child Processing Centers

The attorneys said that hundreds of kids are being held in filthy, overcrowded, and increasingly dangerous conditions.

by Gaby Del Valle
Jun 22 2019, 1:54pm

Attorneys who work with migrant children recently visited two Border Patrol processing centers along the U.S.-Mexico border — and what they saw paints a bleak picture of the Trump administration’s treatment of child migrants.

The attorneys said that hundreds of kids are being held in filthy, overcrowded, and increasingly dangerous conditions at the Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas and the Ursula processing center in McAllen, Texas — often for weeks at a time. The facilities are riddled with flu and lice outbreaks and often lack proper adult supervision. Some older kids even have to take care of the younger ones.

“I have not seen conditions like this before,” said Warren Binford, a law professor at Williamette University and part of the team who went to Clint, Texas. “They [Border Patrol agents] say, ‘We are on your side. Children don’t belong here; they need to get to appropriate facilities because we can’t appropriately care for them here.’”

These Border Patrol stations are temporary processing centers and were never intended to be used as long-term shelter. They’re not equipped with beds or blankets, and the temperatures are often so cold that migrants refer to them as “hieleras" — iceboxes. In fact, federal rules dictate that unaccompanied migrant children who arrive in the U.S. shouldn’t be kept in Border Patrol stations for more than 72 hours.

After that point, children are supposed to be picked up by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and transferred to a shelter for child migrants. That’s where they stay while the government works to reunite them with a sponsor, usually a parent or another family member already in the country.

Customs and Border Protection and the Office of Refugee Resettlement did not respond to request for comment.

Children sleeping in a “warehouse”

Children at the Clint facility described being forced to sleep in crowded “cells,” Binford said. Some were given mats to sleep on. Others, including babies, were forced to sleep on the floor.

“The children consistently described that numerous children sleep on a single mat. Some have six children on a mat,” she said.

Overcrowding at the station has facilitated the spread of diseases, including the flu, Binford said. The problem has been made worse by filthy conditions. Some of the cells have open toilets. Fifteen children in the facility have the flu and 10 others have been quarantined, according to the Associated Press.

“There is no soap for the kids to wash their hands with. We saw many, many sick children,” she said. “We immediately saw children who were coughing and had runny noses. They had mucus all over their shirts.”

Earlier this month, the Trump administration argued in court that children in Border Patrol custody aren’t entitled to things like soap, toothbrushes, or towels.

At least 250 children, ranging from months-old infants to 17-year-olds, were at the Clint facility as of Wednesday, according to Binford. The Associated Press confirmed that there were three infants in the station that day, as well as four toddlers, and “dozens” of children under the age of 12.

Binford said that she and the other lawyers were told that the Clint facility could initially hold up to 104 children but now has room for 600 because of a recent expansion. Though the lawyers weren’t allowed to tour the station, Binford said they saw a “giant warehouse” outside the main building and that Border Patrol officers confirmed that children were being held there.

“There are no windows on the side of that warehouse,” Binford said. “It’s just a giant, cheap, metal-framed structure.”

A flu outbreak

Lawyers who visited the Ursula processing center in McAllen described similar conditions at those at Clint and warned that several children were in need of immediate medical attention. When Toby Gialluca, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, and other attorneys visited the station last week, they were greeted by dozens of sick children.

“I can’t give a medical opinion — we didn’t have the capability to test them — but everyone I saw was exhibiting some degree of respiratory illness,” Gialluca told VICE News.

Hope Frye, an immigration attorney who led the site visit, told VICE News that she caught Influenza A while interviewing the children and had to be hospitalized. But the children in the station weren’t given that level of medical attention, she said.

“They are sleeping in concrete in a freezing place. They’re not being fed. They don’t have water and soap,” Frye said. “They don’t even have blankets, they have pieces of aluminum foil.”

One teenage girl, who had recently given birth to a premature baby, was in particularly bad shape. Other lawyers told HuffPost that the 17-year-old girl and the infant had spent seven days in the facility without adequate medical care. The baby was wrapped in a dirty towel and had become “weak and listless,” according to the HuffPost report.

Gialluca said he was just one of several sick children and that babies were being given formula mixed with non-potable water instead of adequate meals.

“This was a planned visit,” Gialluca said. “This was with warning. What’s going on when they don’t know we’re coming?”

Cover image: This June 20, 2019, frame from video shows the entrance of a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas. A legal team, that interviewed about 60 children at the station near El Paso, says young migrants being held there are experiencing neglect and mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)