The Current

Migrant kids in U.S. detention are separated from adults for their own safety, says former immigration judge

Lawyers representing migrant children at the southern U.S. border say the minors were being held without access to necessities like soap or toothpaste, and that many fell ill in facilities where kids are left to care for kids. One of the lawyers tells The Current that conditions are terrible, while a former judge says the concerns are overblown.

U.S. desperate to avoid situation where 'children are exploited,' Andrew Arthur says

Protestors demonstrate against the separation of migrant children from their families in Los Angeles last week. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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Many of the migrant children that were being held in facilities along the southern U.S. border were separated from adult migrants for their own safety, according to a former immigration judge.

"We are desperate not to have a situation in which these children are exploited," said Andrew Arthur, who is now resident fellow with the Centre for Immigration Studies, an independent research organization that bills itself as "low-immigration, pro-immigrant."

"The segregation of these children within the facilities has to be done in order to keep the minors away from primarily adult males ... because we don't want anything bad to happen," he told The Current's guest host Megan Williams.

"These aren't caged children, these are children who are being separated from adults who may pose a danger to them."

Last week, lawyers met and interviewed 60 children detained at the Border Patrol station near El Paso, Texas — some of which have now been moved. 

One of those lawyers, Warren Binford, said the children were "living in horrendous conditions."

"We were taken aback because the children were just filthy dirty," said Binford, who is a law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and an international children's rights expert.

"They haven't been given showers, their teeth had not been brushed, their hair was matted," she told Williams.

This frame from a video taken on June 20 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 held there are experiencing neglect and mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government. (Cedar Attanasio/The Associated Press)

Some of the children were sick, Binford added, showing symptoms of "severe influenza."

"Children complained of symptoms that included high fevers, dizziness, headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea."

On Monday, the U.S. government removed most of the 300 children from the remote Texas facility after lawmakers on both sides of the debate decried the situation as unsafe and unsanitary. Only 30 kids remain at the Border Patrol station.

The lawyers inspected the facilities because they are involved in the Flores settlement, a Clinton-era legal agreement that governs detention conditions for migrant children and families. The lawyers negotiated access to the station with officials, and say Border Patrol knew the dates of their visit three weeks in advance.

Binford explained that government rules call for children to be held by U.S. Border Patrol for no longer than 72 hours before they are transferred to the custody of Health and Human Services, which houses migrant youth in facilities around the U.S.

"Border Patrol facilities in the United States are notoriously wretched facilities," she said.

"[Children] are supposed to be out of these facilities in a matter of hours, and some of the children we interviewed have been there for over three weeks."

'Tell them they can't hug': Former youth migrant shelter worker explains why he quit his job

5 years ago
Duration 7:39
Antar Davidson quit his job at a youth migrant shelter in Arizona after 5 months because he says he was placed in situations and told by superiors to do things that were against his morals

Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez drew criticism last week when she described migrant detention centres as "concentration camps."

Arthur said the New York politician's comments, made in an Instagram live video on June 17, were "completely overblown rhetoric."

Instead, he explained what's needed is "more money so that we can place these children safely and securely."

On May 1, the Trump administration asked Congress for $4.6 billion US in emergency funding, including $3 billion US to care for unaccompanied migrant children.

"That is 55 days that we've been waiting for the funding, it's unconscionable, and it has to be done," Arthur said.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Jessica Linzey, Alison Masemann, Aruna Dutt, Julie Crysler and Ines Colabrese.

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