No products in the cart.
WASHINGTON – In a federal home in Dallas, migrant children sleep in a windowless room in the convention center under fluorescent lights that never go dark.
At an El Paso military base, teenagers pile up on bunk beds and some say they went for days without a bath.
And in Erie, Pennsylvania, problems arose within days of setting up the shelter: “The fire safety system is a big problem,” according to an internal report. Some of the water heaters were not working and lice were “a big problem and seem to be increasing”.
Earlier this year, children who crossed the southwestern border in record numbers were pushed into the cold, incarcerated detention facility operated by Customs and Border Protection. They slept side by side on mats with foil covers, almost always far longer than the legal limit of 72 hours. The Republicans declared it a crisis. Democrats and immigrant groups denounced the conditions that created international embarrassment for President Biden, who campaigned for a return to compassion in the immigration system.
The administration responded by rapidly establishing emergency shelters, including some that could accommodate thousands of children. But the next possible crisis is in sight.
“I know the government wants to win a victory in moving children from border patrol stations – and they deserve credit for that,” said Leecia Welch, attorney and senior director of the legal and child welfare practice for the National Center for Youth Law, a not-for-profit law firm. which focuses on low-income children. “But the truth is that thousands of traumatized children are still living in massive detention centers on military bases or convention centers, and many have been banished to unsafe and unsanitary conditions.”
Xavier Becerra, the Secretary for Health and Human Services, gave the situation its best face in an interview on Friday. The conditions in the emergency facilities are different, he said. “It’s site after site.”
On Thursday, he visited the division’s animal shelter at the Convention Center in Long Beach, California, home to nearly 700 children, mostly under the age of 12, a fraction of the 20,000 immigrant minors in government detention.
“Not only was I delighted to see it work, but I was actually thrilled with what I saw,” said Becerra. It was his first shelter tour since it was confirmed in mid-March.
There is broad consensus that the emergency shelters operated by the Refugee Resettlement Office of the Department of Health and Human Services are an improvement over the border guards. However, interviews with child advocates and a look back at weeks of internal reports in the New York Times paint a picture of a protection system with very different conditions, some of which are well below the standard of care promised by the Biden administration.
“No care system in America would allow children to stay in places like this for weeks or months,” said Ms. Welch, who has visited shelters and interviewed children about their whereabouts.
None of the shelters are open to the public and photography is prohibited. Ms. Welch’s organization monitors compliance with a 1997 government settlement setting conditions for the detention of immigrant children in the United States. Many organizations that work with the federal government to provide care are not allowed to talk about what they see.
One of the children Mrs. Welch met was a 10-year-old girl who had arrived at the border alone because her mother had been kidnapped on her trip north. She spent nearly three weeks in custody by the Border Police this year before being transferred to the Erie, Pennsylvania, animal shelter.
The heat was cut in three rooms, including one with an isolated child who had Covid-19 and complained of cold. There weren’t enough clothes for the children to wear in the chilly early spring in Pennsylvania. And the shelter was understaffed and the volunteers were “overwhelmed, stressed and tired” according to a government assessment.
Cleaning was rare, as was the garbage disposal. Gas leaked inside and outside where the children lived. The shelter closed on April 26th.
Another animal shelter that opened in Houston closed months ahead of the scheduled date. The building, which housed 500 girls aged 13 to 17, had problems from the start, Ms. Welch said. She described the shelter as a warehouse with no access to nature, where children were without bathing for days. The food made them sick, she said, and some fainted from not eating. They weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom after 10 p.m., she said.
These shelters are not bound by the law that sets a standard of care and are usually monitored by the refugee agency. This network of licensed accommodations, which can accommodate fewer than 10,000 children, is not big enough to handle the surge in migrants this year. Even that limited capacity decreased during the Trump administration, Biden aides say.
The emergency facilities should house migrant children for very short stays, but minors remain in detention at the Ministry of Health and Human Services for about a month.
“These facilities were designed and expanded with the aim of achieving immediate reunions with parents, sponsors and guardians,” said Maria M. Odom, senior vice president of Legal Programs at Children in need of defense.
However, a significant shortage of case managers tasked with placing the children with family members and other sponsors extends stays in these accommodations. The government has hired contractors to fill these roles in some shelters, and federal employees from other agencies have volunteered to help. But it is nowhere near enough.
Recently, due to modest improvements, more children were released from state custody every day than were taken over by Border Patrol. On Monday, 427 children were released from government custody and 358 were admitted according to the latest data.
But unaccompanied children are still reaching the limit; As part of the Biden administration policy, they are admitted and not turned away as under the Trump administration.
Michelle L. Saenz-Rodriguez, an immigration attorney, described a facility for 2,000 children, mostly teenagers, in an emergency shelter at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas. “It’s literally a large ballroom with no exterior windows and typical fluorescent lighting,” she said.
For weeks, internal documents have indicated an unmet need for urgent psychological consultations for the children. Sometimes there was no mental health staff on site.
The Dallas Shelter will close at the end of the month as the lease expires, as will another Emergency Shelter in San Antonio. The Biden government wants to house more children at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, which has the largest shelter on the network and can accommodate more than 5,000 children. According to internal records, the administration plans to accommodate up to 10,000 children there, half of whom would be 12 years of age and under. Around 4,400 young people currently live there.
“I am amazed to learn that Fort Bliss will increase capacity to 10,000 beds,” said Ellen Beattie, director of the International Rescue Committee. She added that it is “hard to imagine that this is in the best interests of the children there”.
The government usually preferred to place younger children in smaller facilities, Ms. Beattie said.
Living conditions in the Fort Bliss Shelter, which is made up of soft tents, are less than desirable. Ms. Welch, who was visiting late last month, said it smelled like a high school locker room. She spoke to children who had not received clean clothes in days.
Ms. Welch described precarious “bunk beds” in which children can sleep and which can collapse while playing. The bedding didn’t seem to be washed regularly, she said.
While there is a way to play soccer outside in the Texas heat, some of the kids told her they didn’t want it because they didn’t know when they would be given clean clothes.
The children “generally describe feeling neglected and desperate,” Ms. Welch said.
The Trump administration has received widespread criticism for the tent city it opened in Tornillo, Texas, on desert land outside of El Paso that was home to more than 2,800 children and teenagers in 2019. “But Fort Bliss is far worse in every way,” said Ms. Welch, adding, “It goes against everything we know about proper care and treatment for traumatized children.”
After the Erie shelter closed, the 10-year-old girl, who stayed in the crowded Border Patrol facility for nearly three weeks, was relocated to a small emergency shelter in a remote location in Albion, Michigan, USA. Said Welch. The girl and the other children at the shelter were loaded into vans with no explanation as to why they were moving more than 300 miles away, Ms. Welch said. She visited the shelter last week when there were 190 children under the age of 12. The system was almost 70 percent full.
The children sleep in bunk beds in a cabin for 14 years, Ms. Welch said. There is a living area, a small kitchen and a room for playing like Connect Four.
“You are not mistreated,” said Ms. Welch. “But a lot of children are really sad because they want to be with their families and they don’t understand why it is taking so long.”
Mr Becerra said he blamed the immigration system for the situation.
“If we have to work with this broken immigration system, at least we’re doing it right, we’re doing what we can,” he said.
“I don’t know what their ultimate fate will be,” he added. “But I know that – while you are in my care, you will be safe and you will be looked after.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs Contribution to reporting.