Doctor compares conditions for unaccompanied children at immigrant holding centers to 'torture facilities'

Lawyers and a doctor given access to the facilities described awful conditions.

June 23, 2019, 3:51 PM

From sleeping on concrete floors with the lights on 24 hours a day to no access to soap or basic hygiene, migrant children in at least two U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities face conditions one doctor described as comparable to "torture facilities."

The disturbing, first-hand account of the conditions were observed by lawyers and a board-certified physician in visits last week to border patrol holding facilities in Clint, Texas, and McAllen, a city in the southern part of the state.

The descriptions paint a bleak image of horrific conditions for children, the youngest of whom is 2 1/2 months old.

"The conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities," the physician, Dolly Lucio Sevier, wrote in a medical declaration obtained exclusively by ABC News.

Lucio Sevier, who works in private practice in the area, was granted access to the Ursula facility in McAllen, which is the largest CBP detention center in the country, after lawyers found out about a flu outbreak there that sent five infants to the neonatal intensive care unit.

In this March 14, 2019, file photo, a group of migrant families walk from the Rio Grande, the river separating the U.S. and Mexico in Texas, near McAllen, Texas, right before being apprehended by Border Patrol.
AP Photo/Eric Gay

After assessing 39 children under the age of 18, she described conditions for unaccompanied minors at the McAllen facility as including "extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food."

All the children who were seen showed evidence of trauma, Lucio Sevier reported, and the teens spoke of having no access to hand washing during their entire time in custody. She compared it to being "tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease."

In an interview with ABC News, Lucio Sevier said the facility "felt worse than jail."

"It just felt, you know, lawless," she said. "I mean, imagine your own children there. I can't imagine my child being there and not being broken."

Conditions for infants were even more appalling, according to the medical declaration. Many teen mothers in custody described not having the ability to wash their children’s bottle.

And children who were older than 6 months were not provided age-appropriate meal options, including no pureed foods necessary for a child's development, Lucio Sevier reported.

"To deny parents the ability to wash their infant's bottles is unconscionable and could be considered intentional mental and emotional abuse," she wrote.

The attorneys who represent the children threatened to sue the government if it denied a visit from a physician. They are part of a team working under the Flores settlement agreement, a 1997 ruling that stipulated detention standards for unaccompanied minors, including being held for less than 72 hours and in the “least restrictive setting appropriate to the child’s age and special needs.”

As part of that ruling, the lawyers, who are part of a class action lawsuit, represent all children in custody and, as such, are allowed to visit and interview them.

Lucio Sevier has no connection to the lawyers aside from their request for a physician to be granted access. The legal team, also from the Flores settlement agreement group, had negotiated access to the Clint facility in advance and officials from CBP knew of their pending arrival for weeks.

In this Saturday, June 23, 2018, file photo, a U.S. Border Patrol Agent walks between vehicles outside the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas
AP Photo/David J. Phillip

The alleged conditions documented at the facilities follow a Homeland Security inspector general report that found "dangerous overcrowding" and unsanitary conditions at a different CBP facility in El Paso, Texas, where hundreds more migrants were being housed than the center was designed to hold.

The El Paso Del Norte Processing Center housed as many as 900 migrant detainees earlier this month despite only having a recommended capacity for 125.

The reports come as President Donald Trump continues to make immigration a staple of his administration and a key issue in his re-election bid. After threatening to deport more than 2,000 undocumented immigrants, and then extending the deadline by two weeks, the president on Sunday tweeted his intention to "fix the Southern Border."

Later in the day, the president blamed his predecessor for implementing the policy of separating migrant. Trump said he ended the policy, too.

"You know, under President Obama you had separation. I was the one that ended it," he told reporters.

The Obama administration's policy only separated families in rare circumstances when the child's safety might be at risk.

Last April, the Trump administration and his attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, enacted a "zero-tolerance" approach that called for stepped-up prosecutions of any adult crossing the border illegally. As a result, 2,700 children were separated from their families in a matter of weeks.

More than a year later, though, documents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -- obtained by immigration rights groups and the Houston Chronicle through a Freedom of Information Act request -- show family separations are still happening, even after a court ordered children to be reunited with their parents.

The documents showed more than 700 children were separated from parents between last June and May, often with questionable legal justification.

The CBP, however, said in a statement it has limited resources and is leveraging all of them to "provide the best care possible to those in our custody, especially children."

"As [Department of Homeland Security] 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," the statement read. "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.

"All allegations of civil rights abuses or mistreatment in CBP detention are taken seriously and investigated to the fullest extent possible," the statement continued.

A U.S. government official added that the immigration system is "clearly broken," but CBP is doing everything it can to "provide appropriate care for children in custody, even though they were never meant to."

"The acting secretary and acting commissioner have been warning about these dire circumstances for months," the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, added. "More must be done to confront this humanitarian crisis and the requested supplemental funding is critical to mitigating it."

The source added that transferring the children to the custody of the Health and Human Services department is a "top CBP priority."

"Without a specific allegation of separating family members that can be looked into, CBP wouldn’t and shouldn't provide additional details without knowing the facts and circumstances of individual cases," the official added.

As for the conditions at detention facilities, lawyers for the Trump administration last week argued that providing basic necessities, like soap, was not a requirement of the Flores agreement. Three judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals repeatedly asked if the lawyers if they were arguing that "safe and sanitary" did not include the ability to sleep soundly or use soap.

In Congress, the Senate Appropriations Committee last week passed, almost unanimously, a $4.6 billion spending bill that included $2.9 billion for HHS programs for unaccompanied children, and it is expected to pass the full Senate this week.

That bill also includes strict regulations that the funds may not used for Trump's proposed border wall.

But House Democrats have crafted their own version of the legislation, which includes enhanced standards at detention facilities.

Leadership in each chamber must then decide on a path forward to reconcile the differences, with lawmakers preparing to leave for a week-long July Fourth recess by Friday.

Trump said despite Democrats not "even approving giving us money," his administration is doing a "fantastic job under the circumstances."

"Where is the money?" he asked. "You know what? The Democrats are holding up the humanitarian aid.”

In this June 17, 2018, file photo, provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who have been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, sit in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP

Wherever the blame lies, the lawyers with the Flores agreement team said present-day conditions at the facilities need urgent attention. At the Clint facility, the environment was just as bad as they were at the McAllen site, the lawyers said.

The Associated Press first reported on the alleged neglect at the Clint facility, reporting ABC News later confirmed.

All of the detainees had been in custody longer than the 72 hours permitted for unaccompanied minors under the Flores agreement. The lengths of stay ranged from four days to 24 days.

"We wanted to try and find out what was happening down there and why these children were dying at a rate that we’ve never seen before,” said Warren Binford, a law professor at Willamette University who helped interview the children at the Clint border patrol facility.

On the day they arrived, they witnessed the Clint facility was home to 351 children -- most from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. More than 100 were under the age of 13, while 18 children were 4 years old or younger, including the youngest, a 4 1/2-month-old, the lawyers found.

Like the McAllen facility, many were held for three weeks or longer, the lawyers learned from the children. Binford added the children who were old enough explained they arrived with a family member or planned to join a parent in the U.S. and all were lawfully entering and claiming asylum.

A lawyer who works with the Flores team told ABC News many children had parents living in the U.S. with whom they wanted to be reunited; others said they had been separated from their parents at the border.

The administration has maintained that separation only occurs in situations in which a family member is dangerous or cannot be confirmed to be the legal guardian.

At the Clint facility, Binford described conditions that included infants and toddlers sleeping on concrete floors, a lice outbreak that led to guards providing two lice combs to 20 children to "work it out," guards punishing the children by taking away sleeping mats and blankets, and guards creating a "child boss" to help keep the other kids in line by rewarding them with extra food.

She said one of the most striking examples was a 2-year-old brought to her with no diaper and being cared for by "several other little girls."

"When I asked where his diapers were and she looked down and said, 'He doesn’t need them,' and then he immediately peed in his pants right there on the conference chair and started crying," Binford said. "So children are being required to care for other very young children and they are simply not prepared to do that."

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