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Migrant children report poor conditions in influx shelters

'I am feeling very desperate.' New court filings detail raw food, dirty clothes, limited shower access for unaccompanied minors at HHS centers

A Customs and Border Protection vehicle patrols the border wall in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the Texas border in 2019.
A Customs and Border Protection vehicle patrols the border wall in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the Texas border in 2019. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Migrant children held in government shelters for unaccompanied minors were served raw and spoiled food, left with dirty clothing and given limited access to phone calls, according to new federal documents filed in an ongoing case.

Several of the children interviewed by lawyers reported a lack of access to legal counsel while in facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as unclear information about when they could expect to be reunited with family sponsors.

One minor, a 16-year-old from Honduras, said he had yet to meet with a case manager about being placed with his sister in New Orleans.

“I am feeling very desperate because I don’t know if anyone here is following my case,” he said, according to the filings submitted Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. “When I talk to my sister, she says that no one has called her to tell her what to do or what paperwork to fill out.”

The teenager said he received a list of free legal service providers and had submitted a form, but had yet to speak with a lawyer. Several others said they had not even received a list of legal service providers.

The court filings were submitted as part of a long-running class action in California federal court known as Flores, which established bedrock standards of care for migrant children in government custody through a 1997 settlement agreement.

Since then, attorneys representing the class of children have monitored government facilities to ensure compliance with the Flores settlement agreement, which requires that children in government custody be held in sanitary conditions and receive medical assistance and other protections.

But according to the filings, showers and clean clothes were limited at some facilities. One Honduran teenager held at a since-shuttered emergency intake site in Houston said she got an infection after staff failed to provide clean underwear.

The interviews presented in the filings also provided a glimpse into the mental well-being of migrant children, some of whom conveyed a sense of hopelessness about their situations.

“There’s also no one here I can talk to when I’m feeling sad,” a 17-year-old Honduran migrant told lawyers. “There’s no one here; I just talk to God. It helps me and I cry.”

Multiple teenagers said they were underfed and poorly fed, with several telling lawyers the facilities served them raw or undercooked chicken.

“I remember that during one meal, my friend was given chicken that still had feathers in it and she had to pull out the feathers,” recalled a 13-year-old from Honduras held at an emergency intake site at the Fort Bliss Army base in Texas.

The same teen said she was put on a suicide watch list and followed by a staffer for 10 days. Staff started taking away girls’ identification cards and lanyards after some used the cards to cut themselves, she said.

Historically high numbers of migrant children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months have presented a challenge for the Biden administration, which has set up several emergency intake sites to house the children.

A court-appointed juvenile coordinator reported in a court filing earlier this month that the HHS refugee office, which oversees custody of unaccompanied children until they are placed with family sponsors, “has experienced an insurmountable number of minors arriving at the border.”

More than 14,000 unaccompanied migrant kids are currently in HHS custody, according to the most recent numbers released by the agency.

The government has made significant progress in reducing the number of children held by Customs and Border Protection, which picks up migrant children before they are transferred to HHS care. As of June 20, 1,040 children were in CBP facilities.

But several of the children said they endured poor conditions in CBP detention for days before they were moved to an HHS site, with freezing temperatures, lack of access to showers and little opportunity to go outside.

“We all had to sleep very close together because there were so many people in the cells,” the Honduran teenager hoping to be reunited with his sister in Louisiana told lawyers. “It was very cold at night, and the blankets weren’t enough to keep us warm.”

The teenager added that in the seven days he had been held by CBP, he had gone outside only once, for 10 minutes.

According to HHS, there are currently fewer than 8,000 children living in emergency intake sites, down from as many as 14,500 in late April. The population at the Fort Bliss emergency shelter has also been reduced from 4,800 children to 1,600.

Additionally, HHS said it has “worked hard to provide access to recreation, counseling and behavioral health services and more” at the Fort Bliss shelter, and legal services “are available on a regular basis on site.”  

The filings earned immediate criticism from immigration advocates, who have raised concerns for months about the conditions in emergency government facilities.

“These heartbreaking conditions are emblematic of the many problems with the warehousing of vulnerable children by contractors with little to no child welfare experience,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said in a statement.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs the Appropriations Committees and its HHS spending panel, described the children’s accounts as “heartbreaking, disturbing, and completely unacceptable for a facility run by HHS.”

“From these stories, I continue to have serious concerns about this growing crisis regarding the physical and mental wellbeing of the children at these sites,” she said in a statement.

“As we move forward with the fiscal year 2022 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill, I am committed to increasing investments to protect children and families and ensuring children in HHS custody receive high-quality education and health services, as well as access to legal services.”

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