Migrant children kept in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have faced unsanitary conditions, verbal abuse and threats since arriving in the country, reports submitted to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) by clinicians and case managers show.
The Significant Incident Reports (SIR), five of which were obtained exclusively by Yahoo News, include descriptions provided by detained unaccompanied minors about the kinds of conditions and treatment they experienced while in CBP custody between June 12 and July 1 of this year.
The reports relay accounts provided by children about the treatment they encountered while detained at various CBP facilities along the southwest border. In almost all cases described in the reports obtained by Yahoo News, the minors had been held in CBP custody for longer than the legally mandated 72-hour limit before they were transferred to ORR care.
According to one report, submitted to ORR on June 13, an unaccompanied immigrant boy described being verbally and emotionally abused, threatened and neglected by CBP officials during the 11 days he was in custody in McAllen, Texas.
During his time in detention in McAllen, the boy reported, he became sick and developed a fever while held in a crowded and cold cell with other young males. After fainting, the boy said, he was taken by a friend to the CBP clinic, where medical staff spoke only English and did not explain to him his diagnosis nor what kind of medication they’d administered to him. According to the report, the boy said he spent three days in the sick bay at the McAllen facility, where he slept on the floor without a mattress or blanket of any kind. The report notes that the boy’s Medical Screening Confirmation from CBP states, “No medical issues identified and treated,” despite the fact that, according to the boy’s account, he was diagnosed with a fever and treated with medicine.
While in the sick bay, he also reported being verbally abused by an official in a black uniform who spoke some Spanish and told him and others in the sick bay, “Your lives don’t matter to me” and “Don’t act like little a**holes with me because, if I feel like it, I can hit you all with this stick.” The minor reported that the same official also told him, in Spanish, “If you act like a little a**hole, I will send you back to your country or I will send you to a different country so you will be alone.”
In another SIR submitted to ORR on June 12, a boy who had been held in CBP custody in San Diego described being separated from relatives, including his two sisters, one of whom is also a minor. This boy reported that during his initial interview with a CBP official, he repeatedly explained that he had traveled to the U.S. with family and said that the official spoke Spanish. Yet the CBP official continued to insist that the boy had traveled to the U.S. alone, the boy said, recording that version on his official paperwork despite the boy’s repeated explanations that this was not true.
This boy also reported that he’d disclosed the trauma he had experienced in his home country to the CBP official, who, he said, told the minor that if he was lying he would be imprisoned, making him “feel intimidated and nervous, although he was telling the truth.”
Two separate reports submitted July 1 offer similar descriptions provided by a 12-year-old girl and her 7-year-old sister of unsanitary conditions at the Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas. The sisters both reported that they had been held for seven days at the facility in a small room with 35 other minors that was kept at an extremely cold temperature, and they were permitted to bathe and brush their teeth only once every three days.
The treatment of migrants, and children in particular, in CBP custody has come under intense scrutiny recently, in part following a report of prolonged detention and neglect of children at the Clint facility, near El Paso. On Monday, members of Congress described conditions as “horrifying” during a visit to border processing facilities, including Clint.
“Now I’ve seen the inside of these facilities,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted. “It’s not just the kids. It’s everyone. People drinking out of toilets, officers laughing in front of members of Congress. I brought it up to their superiors. They said ‘officers are under stress & act out sometimes.’ No accountability.”
The reports obtained by Yahoo News were all generated by caseworkers and clinicians at one of approximately 120 ORR-funded shelters for unaccompanied immigrant children across the country.
In response to a request for comment on the reports, a CBP official provided a link to the agency’s Transport, Escort, Detention and Search policy along with the following statement:
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection leverages our limited resources to provide the best care possible to those in our custody, especially children. As DHS and CBP leadership have noted numerous times, our short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations and we urgently need additional humanitarian funding to manage this crisis. CBP works closely with our partners at the Department of Health and Human Services to transfer unaccompanied children to their custody as soon as placement is identified, and as quickly and expeditiously as possible to ensure proper care.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Health and Human Services had indicated receipt of Yahoo News’ request for comment but was unable to provide a response before publication of this article.
Jennifer Podkul, policy director at Kids in Need of Defense, which provides pro bono legal services to immigrant children, said the kind of treatment described in these reports is hardly new, although the likelihood of such incidents increases as kids spend more time in CBP custody.
“For years we’ve been pushing CBP to hire child-welfare professionals; it’s been evident for a long time that these agents and officers are not equipped to care for these kids,” she said.
“I’m glad to see case managers are reporting to ORR when they hear these kinds of stories,” she said, adding, “There’s been no accountability for this kind of behavior towards children.”
Ursela Ojeda, a policy adviser at the nonprofit Women’s Refugee Commission, stressed that the treatment described in these recent reports, along with the private Facebook group revealed by ProPublica this week, are indicative of “a culture of cruelty, of callously disregarding the rights of individuals in custody” within CBP.
“Not every single CBP officer is a bad person,” Ojeda said. “That would be impossible. There are a lot of people trying to do their jobs and care for people. But there is also just a culture up through leadership of disregarding the rights and stories of these people that are suffering.”