"Welcome to Hell:" The Border Patrol's Repeated Abuse of Children

A Border Patrol agent stands on a ranch fence line with children taken into custody in South Texas brush country north of Lar
A Border Patrol agent stands on a ranch fence line with children taken into custody in South Texas brush country north of Laredo, Texas, Tuesday, June 6, 2006. According to agents, the children were separated from their families after the Border Patrol apprehended a large group of immigrants that crossed into the U.S. illegally. They spent the next 11 hours in the brush until agents found them. This came a few hours before President Bush visited the Laredo Border Patrol Sector. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Detainees wrested from sleep every 30 minutes, the lights in their frigid cells never turned off. One detainee told by officials, don't lie or you'll be raped. Another detainee sexually abused by guards. Detainees forced to stand in stress positions. Others denied adequate food, water, and medical treatment and held in dehumanizing conditions. "Welcome to hell," one guard told a detainee, a good metaphor for what occurs across these sites of torment.

These incidents don't come from military prisons in Iraq or Afghanistan or CIA black sites. This has been happening for years along the Southwest border in U.S. government facilities run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and its Border Patrol. The victims: children, some as young as infants, as documented in a recent complaint filed by a group of immigrant rights advocates who interviewed 116 unaccompanied children previously held in CBP custody.

Just as appalling, government agencies have known about these abuses for a long time, but failed to take action. Now, more children are vulnerable to harm in Border Patrol custody than ever before. Since October, 47,000 children have left their homes in Central America, mainly in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, for the United States. They flee destabilizing violence and crime fomented by criminal syndicates and gangs, more often than not without a loved one leading the way. With their fate far from certain, they make an arduous, perilous trek, sometimes spanning thousands of miles, in search of refuge in America. They risk it all, not so much in search of a better life, but simply to live.

Once here, many of these brave and resourceful children -- who have already suffered abuse many times before throughout their lives -- encounter not compassion and empathy from U.S. immigration officials but abuse. The most vulnerable are once again taught a cruel lesson: There's nowhere safe for them to lay their heads down and just be children.

The advocates' interviews with unaccompanied children are chilling.

One in four detained children reported physical abuse at the hands of CBP, including sexual assaults and beatings. More than half reported verbal abuse, including racist and sexist insults and even death threats, as well as the denial of urgent medical care. In one instance, a 14-year-old girl's asthma medication was confiscated. She subsequently suffered multiple asthma attacks. After the first attack, CBP officials threatened her, telling her she better not be faking or else.

Seven out of ten interviewed reported detentions lasting longer than the 72-hour period mandated by law. Three out of ten children reported that their belongings were confiscated and never returned. Many others reported being shackled during transport, the metal restraints excruciatingly digging into their wrists and ankles. Eighty percent reported CBP personnel denied them adequate food and water.

Sometimes the cruelty shocks the conscience.

One 17-year-old girl, soaking wet, was placed in a frigid holding cell, which detained children commonly referred to as the hielera, or the freezer. Her only drinking water came from the toilet tank. When she had to use the toilet, she found herself exposed to other detainees and a wall-mounted security camera.

Another boy apprehended near the McAllen, Texas, border was threatened with rape by a CBP official who told him that he would "become the wife" of another male detainee. He was subsequently strip-searched and made to stand naked for 15 minutes while a different CBP official patted him down while humiliating the boy with his laughter. His crime? The officials didn't believe he was 16 years old.

Two weeks ago, CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske ordered an internal investigation into the abuse allegations. That's a start, but in light of the fact that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) oversight agencies have known about and failed to respond to similar reports of child abuse for years, there is good cause to question the agency's ability to police itself.

It's also shocking that abuse of children in immigration detention has continued in spite of laws specifically designed to protect them. In 1997, following extensive litigation concerning the abuse of Central American refugee children by immigration officials, the government agreed to reforms in the Flores Settlement Agreement. It mandated that immigration officials treat any undocumented child with "dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability." Flores provided the foundation for subsequent legislation enacted specifically to protect unaccompanied immigrant children. Nearly two decades later, however, DHS has failed to issue permanent regulations to implement the Flores agreement or to shield these children from government abuse.

With so many children crossing the border now, there's been no more urgent time to protect the most vulnerable amongst us. The only way to do that is for Congress to strengthen existing protections and for the Obama Administration to finally put an end to the culture of cruelty and impunity that pervades CBP. Any immigration official found to have mistreated or abused a child should be terminated immediately. More importantly, wholesale reforms of CBP -- including the creation of meaningful oversight and accountability mechanisms and enforceable short-term detention standards -- are desperately needed to prevent further rights violations.

The tolerance of child abuse by federal authorities violates our laws and our values -- it is both inhumane and immoral. Now is the time to put an end to it.

James Lyall is a staff attorney at the ACLU of Arizona where he works in the ACLU's Border Litigation Project. Prior to joining the ACLU, Lyall worked at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles, where he represented unaccompanied immigrant children in deportation proceedings.