Four toddlers were so severely ill and neglected at a U.S. Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, that lawyers forced the government to hospitalize them last week.
The children, all under age 3 with teenage mothers or guardians, were feverish, coughing, vomiting and had diarrhea, immigration attorneys told HuffPost on Friday. Some of the toddlers and infants were refusing to eat or drink. One 2-year-old’s eyes were rolled back in her head, and she was “completely unresponsive” and limp, according to Toby Gialluca, a Florida-based attorney.
She described seeing terror in the children’s eyes.
“It’s just a cold, fearful look that you should never see in a child of that age,” Gialluca said. “You look at them and you think, ‘What have you seen?’”
Another mother at the same facility had a premature baby, who was “listless” and wrapped in a dirty towel, as HuffPost previously reported.
The lawyers feared that if they had not shown up at the facility, the sick kids would have received zero medical attention and potentially died. The Trump administration has come under fire for its treatment ― and its alleged neglect ― of migrants who have been crossing the southern border in record numbers. The result is overcrowded facilities, slow medical care and in some instances, deaths.
Immigration authorities say they’re overwhelmed; activists say they’re not trying hard enough.
“It’s intentional disregard for the well-being of children,” Gialluca said. “The guards continue to dehumanize these people and treat them worse than we would treat animals.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
The Associated Press reported this week that children in border facilities don’t have adequate access to food, water, soap or showers. On Tuesday, a Justice Department attorney argued in court that the government should not have to provide detained children with soap, toothbrushes or beds.
The AP report is based on interviews a group of lawyers conducted with hundreds of children in three Texas-based Border Patrol stations last week as part of the Flores settlement ― an agreement that outlines conditions for detained children. The lawyers say children are also being held in these facilities for longer than the 72-hour limit the settlement specifies, and in some cases up to three weeks.
Lawyers are particularly concerned about the spread of illness inside Border Patrol facilities, which can sometimes turn fatal. Five children have died in Border Patrol custody since December, some of whom were initially diagnosed with a common cold or the flu. The processing center in McAllen, known as Ursula, recently quarantined three dozen migrants who were sick after a 16-year-old died of the flu at the same facility.
Children and their parents told lawyers that in some cases they didn’t have any access to medical treatment in Border Patrol facilities despite being visibly ill. Gialluca spoke with one 16-year-old mother whose toddler had the flu, but was told by a guard the child “wasn’t sick enough to see a doctor.” She said others also reported being denied medical attention despite having critically sick babies.
Medical experts say that because children have less developed immune and respiratory systems, their symptoms can escalate quickly if they aren’t properly treated.
“When she left us, I knew she was going back to a place that was cold, crowded and unsanitary.”
Dr. Julie Linton, the co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics, previously told HuffPost that children can’t recover from illnesses in Border Patrol facilities. These centers are described as “hieleras” ― Spanish for iceboxes ― because of their freezing temperatures, and migrants describe sleeping on floors under bright lights that shine 24/7, with nothing but Mylar blankets to keep warm.
Gialluca met one 16-year-old mother whose 8-month-old baby was sick with the flu and forced to sleep outside for four days at the McAllen Border Patrol station. The mother said the guards took the clothing off the baby’s back, leaving her in a diaper, and forced them to sleep on concrete without a blanket.
A sick 2-year-old girl was shivering in a T-shirt and had shallow breathing, according to Mike Fassio, a Seattle-based immigration attorney who visited Ursula.
“I was very, very concerned,” he said, adding lawyers spoke with immigrants in a room outside of the facility. “When she left us, I knew she was going back to a place that was cold, crowded and unsanitary.” Fassio noted that guards referred to the children as “bodies.”
Some children were so exhausted they fell asleep during the interviews, said Clara Long, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who spoke with kids at a facility in Clint, Texas. Long met a 3-year-old boy who was dirty with matted hair and was being taken care of by his 11-year-old brother. She said that more than 10 sick children were being quarantined in cells.
While the group of roughly eight lawyers and interpreters at Ursula were supposed to be interviewing children about conditions in the facilities, they also ended up asking guards and government officials to bring kids to the hospital because they were so worried about their state. Gialluca added that she and her colleagues interviewed only a small portion of migrants in the facility, which is the largest processing center in the U.S. and can hold up to 1,000 people. She believes the number of migrants in need of hospitalization is likely much higher.
Government officials have blamed horrific conditions at detention facilities on the fact that Congress has not yet passed an emergency funding package that would include almost $3 billion to help care for unaccompanied migrant children. But Gialluca says border officials shouldn’t need more resources to treat immigrants like human beings.
“Money isn’t keeping guards from allowing people to access toilets,” she said. “Money isn’t causing guards to take clothing and medicine away from children.”