A prematurely born infant and her 17-year-old mother spent seven days being almost entirely neglected in Border Patrol custody, according to lawyers who visited an immigrant processing station in McAllen, Texas, on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The baby, barely a month old, was wrapped in a dirty towel, wore a soiled onesie and looked listless, said one of the lawyers, Hope Frye. The mother was in a wheelchair due to complications from her emergency C-section and had barely slept ― the pain made it too uncomfortable for her to lie down, the immigration and human rights attorney said.
“I looked at that baby and said ‘Who does this to babies?’” Frye said. “They were being sadistically ignored.”
The mother, according to Frye, said she had been taken to the hospital at least once to receive pain medication, but the baby had received no medical attention since being in Border Control custody. The child was born in Mexico just after her teenage mother left Guatemala for the U.S. when she was eight months pregnant.
“The situation is so egregious and so inexplicable,” Frye said. “No person of good conscience could see this and think it’s alright to do any of what they’ve done.”
Frye said one of her colleagues, an immigrant rights advocate, told her on Wednesday that the baby had not cried for five hours and had become “weak and listless.” The advocate, according to Frye, said that since the infant was wrapped only in a towel she was concerned her body temperature was dropping, which can be fatal.
Children in government custody should not be kept in Border Patrol facilities longer than 72 hours, according to federal law and a court order. But The Washington Post recently found that children are regularly spending more than a week in stations and processing centers, and advocates told HuffPost that they’ve encountered numerous mothers with their infants not being transferred to longer-term facilities in a timely manner.
Frye said that she and her team worked Tuesday and Wednesday to try to get the new mother and her child released from Border Patrol custody. After alerting government officials and medical officers, they also called 911 and the local Child Protective Services office, both of which said they didn’t have jurisdiction over the federal facility, according to Frye.
Dr. Marsha Griffin, a pediatrician who works at the border and is co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Immigrant Health Special Interest Group, said she reached out to government medical officers on behalf of the lawyers and said they were responsive and concerned.
Customs and Border Protection did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) learned of the case through the lawyers and tweeted on Thursday that officials at the Department of Homeland Security he contacted said the mother and child would be transferred to a long-term shelter immediately.
The lawyers later on Thursday confirmed to HuffPost that the family had been transferred to a resettlement facility.
The conditions at Border Patrols facilities have drastically deteriorated in recent months since an influx of immigrants, including a record number of families and unaccompanied children, have been crossing the border. Five children have died in Border Patrol custody since December.
Processing centers are no place for children. Dr. Marsha Griffin
Migrants call the processing centers “hieleras” ― iceboxes ― because the temperatures are freezing cold and they are given only foil-like Mylar blankets to stay warm. Families also describe eating frozen ham sandwiches and sleeping on concrete floors under bright lights that are kept on 24/7.
Medical experts have previously told HuffPost that Border Patrol centers are not a safe place for kids, in part because no thorough medical assessments are provided by pediatricians and diseases can spread quickly in the environment. The McAllen processing center, the largest in the country, recently had to quarantine three dozen migrants with the flu, after a 16-year-old in the same facility died of the infectious disease.
“The baby infant and mother should never have been held in detention for five minutes,” Frye said. “Any small sickness would kill her, period.”
“Processing centers are no place for children,” said Griffin. “Children can get rapidly sick.”
She said premature babies, in particular, should be quickly transferred out of Border Patrol facilities and transferred to centers where they can receive proper nutrition and medical care.
Border Patrol facilities were designed to house single men, who previously made up the majority of immigrants crossing the border, and they are not equipped to handle the influx of families. A processing center in El Paso, Texas, has crammed up to 900 migrants in a cell supposed to hold 125 people, and some of the migrants had to stand on toilets to find breathing room, according to a recent report by DHS’ inspector general. Children in Border Patrol stations have reported being physically abused and having to drink toilet water to stay hydrated.
Government officials say they don’t have the resources to deal with the specific needs of families in Border Patrol facilities. But advocates say the Trump administration has continually put children’s health in jeopardy, from family separation to holding children for up to nine months in temporary facilities, and that there is no excuse for this treatment.
Frye said the teenage mother she and her team just encountered “will be forever traumatized. The whole thing is a nightmare from which she’ll never recover.”