Chaos, Illness and Danger Pervade Migrant Child Jail in Texas

Outrage is mounting over a shocking Associated Press report published late last week revealing that at least 250 migrant infants, children and teenagers have been locked up for nearly a month without adequate food, water or sanitation at a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, near the city of El Paso. Lawyers who visited the facility described a scene of chaos and sickness, with children unable to shower or change into clean clothes for weeks on end. The AP report came the same week that the Trump administration argued in federal court that the government is not required to provide toothbrushes, soap or beds to children detained at the border, and as other reports found similarly squalid conditions at a number of immigration jails. We speak with Warren Binford, a lawyer who interviewed children detained at the Clint, Texas, facility.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: Outrage is mounting over deplorable and dangerous conditions for migrant children being jailed in detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border following a shocking Associated Press report late last week revealing at least 250 infants, children and teenagers have been locked up for nearly a month without adequate food, water or sanitation at a Border Patrol station near El Paso, Texas. Lawyers who visited the facility in Clint, Texas, described a scene of chaos and sickness, with children unable to shower or change into clean clothes for weeks on end. The children have been reportedly fed uncooked frozen food or rice, and young children are being forced to care for infants and toddlers. One local lawyer said a sick 2-year-old boy was being treated by three girls between the ages of 10 and 15, because no one else was helping him. Attorney Holly Cooper said, quote, “In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” she said.

This report came the same week the Trump administration argued in federal court the government is not required to provide toothbrushes, soap or beds to children detained at the border, and as other reports found similarly squalid conditions at a number of immigration jails. Lawyers who visited detained migrants at a processing center near McAllen, Texas, reported migrants, including young mothers and children, were jailed in unsanitary conditions, sometimes being forced to sleep outside due to overcrowding.

For more, we go to Los Angeles, where we’re joined by Warren Binford, a lawyer who interviewed children detained at the Clint, Texas, facility. She is a law professor at Willamette University, director of its Clinical Law Program.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Warren Binford. Can you describe why you went to Clint and what you found there? Describe your interviews with the children.

WARREN BINFORD: Well, basically, we went there because on an almost monthly basis we are learning that children are dying in Border Patrol facilities all along the border, and we’re trying to figure out what exactly is going on down there. So we sent a team of attorneys, doctors, interpreters to meet with the children and find out about the conditions in which they are being kept.

We were not originally planning to go to the Clint border facility outside of El Paso, Texas, because it’s an adult facility, and the facility historically has had a relatively small occupancy, maximum of 104. However, we received reports last week that children appeared to be moving to this facility. And so what we did was we added it to our list of visits. And when we got there on Monday morning, we were immediately given a roster showing that there were over 350 children at this facility. And then, when we scanned the roster, we were taken aback by the number of very young children at this facility. There were over a hundred young children who were being kept there. And so, we immediately asked the guards to start to bring us the youngest children and also the children who had been there the longest. We also saw that there were about a half a dozen child mothers and their infants. And so we asked the guards to also bring us those children.

When the children walked into the conference room, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. They were sick. They were coughing. They had runny noses. They were filthy dirty. And they immediately started to describe the level of hunger that they were experiencing. They told us that they were being fed nothing but the same meals three times a day, and they weren’t really meals. These are Frankenfood; these are highly processed chemical foods. In the morning, they are given instant oatmeal, a packet of Kool-Aid and a cookie. For lunch, they are given instant soup, a cookie and another packet of Kool-Aid. And then, for dinner, they’re given a frozen burrito in a plastic wrapper, similar to what you would see at a gas station. And some of the children complained that the burritos were often not thoroughly cooked. And then they also, at that point, are given another cookie and a Kool-Aid. Young children are being given this meal. Child mothers are being given this meal. And so, the children, on a routine basis, said that they were hungry.

On top of that, the children started to describe rooms in which there were 25, 50, a hundred children. One boy said that when he first arrived there, there were over 300 children in a room. When we talked to the Border Patrol officers who are running this facility, they reported to us that the facility had recently undergone an expansion, but we couldn’t figure out where that expansion was. So, after that first day of interviewing, we drove around the facility, and we saw a metal warehouse with no walls. And we couldn’t believe that that possibly could be the expansion. But when we talked to the Border Patrol officers the next day and started to talk to the children about where they were being kept, we found out that, in fact, that one warehouse was allegedly what had given them an additional capacity of 500 additional children.

So, then what happened was, is we started to talk about the children, and we asked them, “Who is taking care of you?” And we found out that, in fact, nobody is — virtually no one is taking care of these children directly, that they are locked up in these cells 24 hours a day. There are open toilets in many of these cells. There’s no soap, no way to wash their hands. They’re being fed in these cells the processed instant foods that I described for you earlier. And many of them are being forced to sleep on concrete because of a shortage of beds and mats and sleeping space. Children described sleeping on concrete floors. They described sleeping on cement blocks — not just the older children, but we heard of infants, toddlers, preschoolers, school-age children who are having to sleep on the floor.

To make things worse, as we were trying to call in the youngest children, because we were especially concerned about the vulnerabilities of certain elements of this population, we found out that there were a number of children that they could not bring to us because they were so sick. And so we started to count the number of children who apparently were sick at this facility and had been quarantined, and we estimated that at least 15 children that we knew about were in quarantine during the time that we were there. And when we finally got access to these children by telephone, we learned about the conditions in these quarantine facilities, which were just horrendous. These very sick children, with high fevers, are being put on the floor, on mats, largely unsupervised, locked up together for days at a time. They’re being brought the same foods that are being fed to everybody else at the facility, despite the fact that they’re very sick.

They also have someone who is coming there twice a day to check their fever and to give them any medications that are needed, but there’s nobody really caring for these children in the quarantine areas, despite their severe illness. Now, keep in mind that many of the children who have died in these Border Patrol facilities in recent months died from influenza, which is very, very rare in a developed country like the United States. But as you can see, these are not conditions that you would expect to see in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: So, do you believe some children can die there?

WARREN BINFORD: Absolutely. And that’s why, after the second day of interviewing these children, we called up — we had a high-level, very urgent meeting in my hotel room and said, “What are we going to do about this? Because somebody is going to die.” And so, we called up the attorneys who are in charge of this case, described what we were seeing, and then asked them what they wanted us to do about it. And for the first time in over 20 years of doing these visits, they told us to go ahead and go to the media, so that we could get these children out of this facility as quickly as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the lice and the lice combs?

WARREN BINFORD: Yes. Yes, yes. So, let me tell you about this incident, because this was especially concerning. This visit was really originally scheduled for just three days. And what ended up happening was, when I was there on Wednesday, we started to hear from several children that there was an incident that had happened in one of the cells. And what the story was, was that there was a lice outbreak in one of the cells. Six of the children were found to have lice. Those six children were given lice shampoo, and then the other children were given two lice combs and told to pass those around and brush their hair with the lice combs in order to make sure that they, too, didn’t have lice or, if they did, that the lice were being pulled out by the lice combs. Now, sharing lice combs, we all know, is something you never do with a lice infestation. But this is, in fact, what happened.

But then the story gets worse, because one of the little kids lost the comb, and the guards hit the roof. They yelled at the children and berated the children. They scared the children. They made the children cry. And then they took out all of the children’s bedding. They took out the mats. They took out the blankets and told them that as punishment for losing that comb, that they were going to have to sleep on the concrete that night. We could not believe that the guards really were going to do what they had threatened to the children that they would do. And so, we arranged to come back the next day, specifically to interview those children and find out if they had been made to sleep on the floor last night or if it was just an empty threat meant to scare the children. And, in fact, we heard from multiple children that they in fact were forced to sleep on the floor that night in this cold cell, you know, on the cold concrete.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the AP is reporting 1-year-old, 2-year-olds, 3-year-old, dozens more under 12.

WARREN BINFORD: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Fifteen have the flu. Nineteen more have been quarantined. And the reports of the 10-year-old taking care of the 2-year-old, handed the 2-year-old by a guard, along with two other kids under 15, that they’re supposed to take care of a sick 2-year-old?

WARREN BINFORD: Yes. We saw multiple children, and not just the tweens and the teens, taking care of young children. We saw school-age children, 7 and 8 years old, who are trying to take care of the toddlers and the preschoolers — you know, for the school-age children, the ones who are about 7 and 8.

There was one especially concerning little girl who had not showered or had her hair shampooed in so long that literally the hair on the back of her head was matted. And as a mom, I can assure you, they’re going to have to cut off all of her hair. When I saw the matting on her hair, I was so deeply concerned that I immediately went to the guards and said, “You need to give this little girl a bath. You need to give her — shampoo her hair. You need to put conditioner in there and detangler. You have to get this matting out of her hair; otherwise, her whole head will have to be shaven.”

And so, I came back the next day and asked if she had been given a bath and her hair shampooed, and I was assured that she had been. So I then called her and asked to see her. And when she was brought to me, she looked just as dirty. Her hair was just as matted as it was the day before.

And so I called in one of the girls who had been helping to take care of her, and I said, “Tell me what’s happening, because I’m being told by the guard that she had a shower yesterday, or a bath, and she obviously hasn’t.” And that little girl, who was about, oh, I’d say, probably 13, 14 years old, she told me that there was a 7- or 8-year-old girl who was taking care of this little 4-year-old girl the day before and was unable to persuade her to take a shower, and so they marked this dirty little 4-year-old girl off as having been given a shower, when in fact she had not been showered at all, because they had left it up to a 7- or 8-year-old to do this massive job of trying to detangle this little girl’s matted hair. It was outrageous.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Binford, where are these children coming from? Why are they separated from their parents? Where are their parents?

WARREN BINFORD: So, about half the children have parents in the United States. So, as we started to interview the children, we asked them where their parents were. We asked them if they had their parents’ telephone number. And most of the children have parents in the United States — most of the children that I interviewed have children in the United States. And they had their parents’ number either memorized or written on a bracelet around their arms or tucked into a piece of paper in their jacket. And so we asked them if they’d like to speak to their parents, if they had spoken to their parents. And many of these children had not spoken to their parents. And many of these children who had spoken to their parents had only spoken to them once.

So, what we did was we got the parents on the phone and started to find out what had happened. And many of these children are coming from Central America, particularly the Northern Triangle, which is El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, and they came to the United States with relatives. This might be a parent, but it might be the entire family. We had one little girl who was separated from her mother, her father and her younger sibling. We had many children who had been separated from older siblings who are young adults. We had children who were separated from aunts and uncles and cousins. And then what’s happening is they are being reclassified as unaccompanied children, even though they came across with relatives and have parents in the United States.

Over 50% of these children last year were placed with their parents in the United States. Another 20-something percent were placed with other family members in the United States. And an additional approximately 15% were placed with other adults who are authorized by the parents to take care of them. So, it’s really a very small percentage, about 12% of the children that we meet with in these facilities, who actually need to be in government custody. Every other child can be put on an airplane to their parents, or their parents are willing to come and get them. We repeatedly talked to the parents who said, “Tell me where I need to send the money to bring my daughter to me, to bring my son to me.” You know, they are able to take care of their children. They want to take care of their children. The only thing that’s standing between these children and their parents is the U.S. government. And I’ve described for you the horrendous conditions in which the U.S. government is keeping these children. It’s outrageous.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the Trump administration telling you?

WARREN BINFORD: Well, you know, the Trump administration is telling us that they are overwhelmed, that there’s too much chaos, that there are too many people coming across the border. And frankly, there is chaos, but it is the chaos that has been created by this administration. We are nowhere near the highest level of apprehensions that have been taken by the Border Patrol over the last several decades. So, the numbers that we’re seeing come in are not the highest numbers that we’ve seen. And when they say that, it’s simply not true.

We are seeing a higher number, higher level of children and young families coming across the border, young mothers and their babies coming across the border, or young children coming across the border, and then some older unaccompanied children. However, we have facilities to take care of them. And as I mentioned earlier, most of these children have family in the United States who can care for them.

So, the administration currently has 12,000 beds online where they can take care of these children. Three-quarters of those beds are in licensed facilities, so that we have some assurance that these children can be relatively well cared for in these facilities compared to what they’re experiencing in Border Patrol. We currently have 2,000 — approximately 2,000 empty beds in those facilities. And children only need to be in those facilities for a few days, no more than 20 days.

So, if the administration would simply manage the resources it has, it can move these children in and out of Border Patrol facilities in a matter of hours, in and out of the Office of Refugee Resettlement beds, you know, those facilities, in a matter of days — no more than 20 days is what’s allowed by law — and into the homes with their families, where it will cost the taxpayer no money to take care of these children. Keep in mind that these facilities that the administration has set up for these kids is costing the American taxpayer $775 a day, which is an outrageous amount of money for us —

AMY GOODMAN: Per kid?

WARREN BINFORD: Yes, per kid, which is an outrageous amount of money, when these children have family in the United States that want to take care of them and are ready to take care of them. All we have to do is let the parents and their families have these children back.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the Trump administration — we just have 30 seconds — breaking the law? For example, the Flores agreement?

WARREN BINFORD: Yes. Yes, absolutely. This is why we went to the media, is that they are absolutely breaking the law. They’re breaking law as to the conditions of detention. They’re breaking the law as to the number of hours that they can keep the children in Border Patrol facilities. They’re breaking the law as far as how long these children are being kept in ORR facilities. They’re breaking the law by taking the children away from their families. And they’re also breaking the law by transporting them on Texas state highways without the appropriate child seats and infant carriers and, you know, these booster seats that are required by law. Everywhere I look, this administration is breaking the law. And the Border Patrol employees that we talked to said they don’t understand why the American people aren’t outraged by the mismanagement that they’re experiencing.

AMY GOODMAN: Warren Binford, we want to thank you so much for being with us.

WARREN BINFORD: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Law professor at Willamette University, director of its Clinical Law Program, one of the experts asked to serve on the monitoring team for the Florescase.

When we come back, elderly Japanese Americans, who were interned during World War II, go back to one of those camps, in Oklahoma — what they call concentration camps, incarceration camps — because the Trump administration plans to put hundreds of migrant children there. Stay with us.