National Center for Youth Law

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Federal filing aims to enforce protections for children in immigration custody, improve care at temporary holding sites

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 9, 2021

Contact: Willis Jacobson, wjacobson@youthlaw.org

The U.S. government continues to detain migrant children indefinitely in temporary makeshift facilities that are unsafe, unsanitary, and damaging to children’s physical and mental wellbeing. A motion filed Aug. 9 by the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) and the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law calls on a federal court to enforce the legal safeguards that are currently being violated.

The motion to enforce, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, asks the court to enforce the landmark 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which established basic standards of care for children in immigration custody. 

The filing includes first-hand accounts from dozens of children living in the government’s so-called Emergency Intake Sites (EIS), as well as testimony from legal service providers, federal whistleblowers, and children’s mental health experts that detail abhorrent and unacceptable conditions and treatment.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) began opening EIS facilities in March of this year and at one point operated as many as 14. There are currently four still in operation. The sites were reportedly intended as an emergency stopgap in response to a lack of space at licensed facilities. As of July 21, 2021, at least 717 of the more than 4,500 children detained in EIS facilities had been there for more than 20 days, including 63 who had been detained for more than 40 days.

NCYL has interviewed more than 180 children detained in EIS facilities over the last five months. Many of the children who are held in two of the remaining EIS facilities report that they or their peers have been denied access to education, recreation, adequate food, and healthcare, among other basic needs. Often, the sites have little to no oversight from trained staff – many workers only speak English and are unable to talk to children in their care – and some children unnecessarily languish for weeks or months with little communication with their families or caseworkers. 

“For months, the children we have met with at the EISs have shared one horror story after the next. Children have described spending the bulk of the day on or around their cots crammed in massive tents with hundreds of other children, suffering escalating anxiety attacks from the stress of the harsh EIS environment, going weeks without clean clothes or underwear, and spending months without going outside for some fresh air, said Leecia Welch, Senior Director of Child Welfare and Legal Advocacy at the National Center for Youth Law. “While some of the unsafe EIS facilities have been closed, mega tent encampments and mining mancamp sites like Fort Bliss and Pecos remain open with no end in sight.”

In declarations submitted to the court, children, some with special needs, also report being held for extended stays, sometimes 60 days or more. This occurs even with children who have family members ready to receive them and despite the government’s own acknowledgement that EIS facilities were not meant for long-term care. This is especially troubling given that the government reports having over a thousand available placements in licensed care facilities that could meet the needs of the children who are currently being harmed in EIS facilities.

Today’s court filing calls for the federal court to enforce the provisions of the Flores Settlement Agreement, which, among other things, requires that children be released to a sponsor as “expeditiously” as possible. When expeditious release is not possible, children should be transferred to a licensed facility.  The motion also calls for an end to the placement of particularly vulnerable children at the Fort Bliss and Pecos EIS facilities due to the inherently inappropriate and harmful conditions at these sites. 

“While we understand the magnitude of the challenge facing the administration, there is no excuse for failing to hold government contractors accountable for complying with basic child welfare standards and allowing children to remain in unsafe conditions for months on end,” said Leecia Welch. “We hope our motion results in more children being quickly released to their families and fewer children suffering at places like Fort Bliss and Pecos.” 

Declarations filed with the court provide many concerning accounts, including:

  • A boy detained at the Fort Bliss EIS facility described feeling “anguished and hopeless.” He said: “You spend the day in bed, surrounded by thousands of kids, with thousands of thoughts racing through your head.”
  • A boy detained at the Pecos EIS facility for more than 60 days shared: “Every day, I wake up and feel very sad. I am frustrated because I see other kids leave before me. Some kids have been here for five days and get to go home. I don’t know what else to do…”
  • A girl detained at the Pecos EIS facility for more than 40 days stated: “When we eat meals, the meat and eggs are sometimes a bit raw … Sometimes, I worry about eating the food because I don’t want to get sick. I know of two kids [who] threw up after eating the food. … I have switched case managers three different times – I think that they just abandoned my case. No one has explained why I have had so many different case managers.”
  • A self-identified whistleblower raised several concerns about the conditions at Fort Bliss EIS, as well as with his own lack of any relevant training or experience. He said he was admonished or ignored whenever he brought these concerns to supervisors. “Gross mismanagement, waste, and abuse of authority by those at the top who insisted on utmost secrecy led to mistreatment of thousands of children,” he said. He further stated that children who had been at the site for more than a few days would often tell him they felt like they were in prison and desperate to leave, a situation only exacerbated by the lack of communication with caseworkers. “The most frequent complaint I heard from children was that they were in a state of total uncertainty and anxiety, with no idea of what to expect next,” he said.

A hearing regarding the matter is scheduled for Sept. 10 in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. 

Read the motion and accompanying exhibits here.