Hundreds of migrant children have been transferred out of a filthy Border Patrol station in Texas where they had been detained for weeks without access to soap, clean clothes or adequate food, the authorities confirmed on Monday, suggesting that worsening conditions and overcrowding inside federal border facilities may have reached a breaking point.
The move came days after a group of lawyers was given access to the station in Clint, Texas, about 20 miles southeast of El Paso, and said they saw children as young as 8 caring for infants, toddlers with no diapers, and children who said they were waking up at night because they were hungry.
Though the station had held a relatively small population of migrants, compared with the tens of thousands who have been crossing the border each month, the lawyers’ accounts offered a rare view into a system that has largely been hidden from public view.
Other examples of facilities with poor conditions have trickled out in recent months through reports published by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, as well as from other lawyers who have occasionally been allowed in.
Access to the facilities has been largely restricted, however, even as federal authorities have declared that the number of migrants on the border has escalated beyond their ability to safely handle.
“We continue to experience a humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border of the United States, and the situation becomes more dire each day,” said Evelyn Stauffer, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which houses children after they have been transferred out of temporary border facilities.
Ms Stauffer added that the agency, along with the departments of Homeland Security, Defence and Justice, had requested $4.5bn (£3.5bn) to help care for the growing number of migrant children who are in shelters.
“We cannot stress enough the urgency,” she said.
The visit by lawyers to the Clint facility on 17 June was allowed as a result of a judge’s order in a long-running court case concerning the conditions under which migrant children are held in government facilities.
After they arrived and observed what was happening, the lawyers, including representatives of some of the nation’s most prominent law schools, immediately began lobbying for the children to be released.
Some 249 of the children were transferred into a shelter system maintained by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to Ms Stauffer; an unknown number of others were sent to a temporary tent facility in El Paso, according to Elizabeth Lopez-Sandoval, a spokesperson for representative Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who began looking into the overcrowded facility in Clint last week after reports about the conditions there.
The lawyers’ accounts drew a powerful backlash from elected officials, including Ms Escobar, as well as members of the public who immediately began donating money to immigrant advocacy groups in the region and launching efforts to send supplies to the facility. Observers said the children who were living there needed diapers, clean clothes and toothbrushes.
The Border Patrol was routing children to Clint because the agency had been facing an unusually large influx of border crossers. The infants there had either been separated from adult family members with whom they had crossed the border or were the children of teenage mothers who had also been detained there. Some of the minors had been held there for nearly a month.
The lawyers who visited the facility, first interviewed by The Associated Press and later by The New York Times, said that children lacked access to private bathrooms, soap, toothbrushes or toothpaste. Many were wearing the same dirty clothes that they had crossed the border in weeks earlier.
Some sick children had been quarantined in Clint, and the lawyers who travelled there were allowed to speak to those children by phone, but not in person.
Ms Lopez-Sandoval said that only 30 children remain in Clint. The Border Patrol station there was meant to be temporary; children are supposed to be transferred out after 72 hours. But many had been languishing there because the Department of Health and Human Services’ shelters were full.
The strain on that system began to let up last week as a result of two changes: First, the Mexican government launched tougher efforts to limit the number of border crossers from Central America, under pressure from Donald Trump. Second, the Department of Health and Human Services scaled back a policy requiring fingerprints from family members who applied to sponsor children in its care, speeding up the children’s release from government facilities.
Many of those who apply to sponsor such children are living in the US illegally themselves and unwilling to submit identifiers that could put them or their family members in danger of arrest and deportation.
A Department of Homeland Security official said that conditions in the tent facility in El Paso were much better than in Clint because the facility had been built especially for families, though it was not known whether the children had been given access to soap or showers since they arrived.
The official, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorised to discuss the situation, said that the children would have been screened medically when they arrived in El Paso, though it was not yet clear if any had required hospitalisation.
The New York Times