U.S. government moves migrant kids after poor conditions exposed

The U.S. government has removed most of the children from a remote Border Patrol station in Texas following reports that more than 300 kids were detained there and caring for each other with inadequate food, water and sanitation.

Texas congresswoman calls conditions 'humanitarian abuses'

Protesters demonstrate against the separation of migrant children from their families in Los Angeles in June 2018. Lawyers who recently visited a child detention facility in Texas described unsanitary conditions and a lack of medical care. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The U.S. government has removed most of the children from a remote Border Patrol station in Texas following reports that more than 300 kids were detained there and caring for each other with inadequate food, water and sanitation.

Just 30 children remained at the facility near El Paso Monday, said Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar after her office was briefed on the situation by an official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Most of the infants, toddlers and teens who were held at the Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, would be moved to shelters and other facilities run by a separate federal agency by Tuesday, the Office of Refugee Resettlement said Monday.

Attorneys who visited the station last week said older children were trying to take care of infants and toddlers, The Associated Press first reported Thursday.

They described a four-year-old with matted hair who had gone without a shower for days, and hungry, inconsolable children struggling to soothe one another. Some had been locked for three weeks inside the facility, where 15 children were sick with the flu and another 10 were in medical quarantine.

"How is it possible that you both were unaware of the inhumane conditions for children, especially tender-age children, at the Clint Station?" asked Escobar in a letter sent Friday to U.S. Customs and Border Protection acting commissioner John Sanders and U.S. Border Patrol chief Carla Provost.

She asked to be informed by the end of this week what steps they're taking to end "these humanitarian abuses."

Lawmakers from both parties decried the situation last week.

Border Patrol officials have not responded to Associated Press questions about the conditions at the Clint facility, but in an emailed statement Monday, they said: "Our short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations and we urgently need additional humanitarian funding to manage this crisis."

'Very, very cold'

Although it's unclear where all the children held at Clint have been moved, Escobar said some were sent to another facility on the north side of El Paso called Border Patrol Station 1. Escobar said it's a temporary site with roll-out mattresses, showers, medical facilities and air conditioning.

But Clara Long, an attorney who interviewed children at Border Patrol Station 1 last week, said conditions were not necessarily better there.

The entrance to the U.S. Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas. U.S. government officials say they've moved more than 100 children back to the facility. (Cedar Attanasio/Associated Press)

"One boy I spoke with said his family didn't get mattresses or blankets for the first two nights, and he and his mom came down with a fever," said Long, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. "He said there were no toothbrushes, and it was very, very cold."

Long and a group of lawyers inspected the facilities because they are involved in the Flores settlement, a 1997 legal agreement that governs the treatment of migrant children and families in U.S. government custody. The lawyers negotiated access to the facility with officials, and say Border Patrol knew the dates of their visit three weeks in advance.

Many children interviewed had arrived alone at the U.S.-Mexico border, but some had been separated from their parents or other adult caregivers including aunts and uncles, the lawyers said.

Last week, a U.S. Justice Department lawyer argued the long-standing settlement agreement was vague about what is required to determine a facility is safe and sanitary. Sarah Fabian told an incredulous three-judge panel at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that the agreement requiring sanitary conditions for detained immigrant children may not necessarily mean a toothbrush and soap must be provided for shorter stays. 

"It's within everybody's common understanding that, you know, if you don't have a toothbrush, if you don't have soap, if you don't have a blanket, it's not safe and sanitary. Wouldn't everybody agree to that? Do you agree with that?" said Judge Atsushi Wallace Tashima. "You mean there's circumstances when a person doesn't need to have a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap for days?"

Judge William A. Fletcher recounted that children who were interviewed described sleeping on concrete floors in cold, crowded rooms with the lights on all night.

"No one would argue that this is secure and sanitary, safe and sanitary — at least I don't think you're arguing that, are you?"

Some well-known Americans who were held captive under extreme conditions weighed in on Twitter to contrast the treatment they received with the plight of the migrant children.

Michael Scott Moore, who was held hostage by Somali pirates for three years, tweeted "Somali pirates gave me toothpaste & soap." His comment was echoed by David Rohde, who said the Taliban gave him toothpaste and soap during the seven months they held him.

Jason Rezaian, who spent 544 days in an Iranian prison, had a similar sentiment.

Following the arguments, the judges said the matter was "submitted for decision."

Government rules call for children to be held by the Border Patrol in their short-term stations for no longer than 72 hours before they are transferred to the custody of Health and Human Services (HHS), which houses migrant young people in facilities around the country through its Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) while authorities determine if they can be released to relatives or family friends.

The ORR said Monday that 249 children who had been held at Clint would soon be moved to the agency's network of shelters and other facilities. 

"[Unaccompanied children] are waiting too long in CBP facilities that are not designed to care for children," ORR spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer said. "These children should now all be in HHS care as of Tuesday."

With files from CBC News