CLINT, Tex. — Clearly stung by allegations that the U.S. Border Patrol is mistreating migrant children in its custody, officials Wednesday forcefully defended the care they are providing while giving a rare tour of the holding facility that has been the focal point of criticism in recent days.
Lawyers and health-care workers who visited the Clint Border Patrol station earlier this month described “appalling” conditions for unaccompanied minors who have been held here because of overcrowding in special shelters designed for children. The lawyers described seeing infants walking around without diapers, older children caring for younger ones and children with filthy clothes and inadequate food.
The descriptions — and the ensuing uproar — have played into the debate over a $4.6 billion request for emergency funding to cover border operations, with some of the funding aimed at providing services to children during what administration officials have called a humanitarian crisis.
Border Patrol officials said the tour Wednesday was more extensive than the one the lawyers received and disputed the earlier characterization of conditions here.
U.S. authorities did not allow cameras on the tour, and reporters were barred from talking to children. Some of the children in the holding cells pressed up against windows to watch the entourage. Border Patrol agents and other government workers wore surgical masks to protect them from contagious diseases.
Approximately 90 children were in the holding cells Wednesday. The rest — all teenage boys — were housed in a fenced-in area of an adjacent sally port that has been converted into a holding area with triple-decker bunk beds and mats. It can accommodate up to 200 children for sleeping.
Officials said 117 children — ranging in age from a few months to almost 18 years old, and mostly boys — were held at the Clint Border Patrol station Wednesday. The facility has a capacity of 106 in its nine holding cells, but the number of children held there has hit 700 at times in recent weeks, officials said.
Some of the boys in the holding area kicked a soccer ball on the pavement. A small area outside the sally port that has seven portable toilets and a two-stall shower facility is used as a play area, featuring a dilapidated basketball goal.
None of the children was outside Wednesday afternoon, when temperatures topped 100 degrees. Children are allowed to play outside one to two hours a day, Border Patrol officials said.
Aaron Hull, chief of the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, strongly denied reports that children do not have access to adequate food, saying the children receive three meals a day — oatmeal for breakfast, ramen noodles for lunch and a microwaved burrito for dinner. They also have access to snacks, officials said.
Children are given a toothbrush each night that is thrown away after use. They are allowed to shower every two days, the officials said, countering claims from visiting lawyers and health professionals that many of the children appeared to have gone long stretches without bathing.
Border Patrol officials, who have long maintained that they are not equipped to care for children in facilities that were designed as temporary holding areas for adult migrants, said they are doing their best to accommodate the children while waiting to transfer them to the Department of Health and Human Services. They said the allegations of mistreatment have been devastating to the officers.
“It’s hurtful,” Hull said. “Our agents are risking their health, their lives, their marriages . . . to enforce the rule of law humanely.”
Although Border Patrol officials rejected some of the specific allegations from the lawyers and health-care workers, they acknowledge that children should not be held for extended periods in the Clint station or at other Border Patrol facilities.
Matthew Harris, the agent in charge of the Clint Border Patrol station, said the cells were designed to hold people for eight to 12 hours, not for days. Border Patrol officials reiterated the Trump administration’s calls for additional resources to deal with the migrant surge.
Bill Ong Hing, a law professor at the University of San Francisco and one of the attorneys who spent three days earlier this month at the facility, located 20 miles southeast of El Paso, said his group requested access to the facility’s holding area but was refused. Instead, they interviewed children in conference rooms.
Border Patrol officials said the court decree that regulates the treatment of migrant children in U.S. custody does not require that they give such access to attorneys representing the children.
Despite the divergent descriptions, Hing said he and Border Patrol officials appear to be largely in agreement about conditions there, noting that he and the other lawyers are focusing on living conditions, not on the officers who are providing care.
“Generally speaking, our criticism is not of individual officers,” he said. “Our criticism is the circumstances under which those officers have to work, that the place was not set up to house children two to three weeks.”
Under a long-standing federal court settlement, unaccompanied migrant children are not supposed to be in Border Patrol custody for more than 72 hours. That requirement has been frequently breached in recent months as an unprecedented surge of migrant families from Central America has flocked to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Children who arrive at the border without a parent or legal guardian are supposed to be quickly turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an HHS agency that works to place children with their parents or sponsors in the United States. Hull and other Border Patrol officials Wednesday said that ORR shelters are full, leaving children to linger in Border Patrol custody.
Harris said children are spending six to 10 days on average at the facility.
The House and Senate have passed bills providing $4.6 billion in emergency funding that is designed, in part, to address the issue of unaccompanied children being held for extended periods in Border Patrol cells. But the bills have significant differences, and it is not clear that a compromise will be reached before the Fourth of July recess.
If Congress does not approve emergency relief funding, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.) said, “the overcrowding continues, the lack of resources gets worse, and my fear is that we’ll have children who die.”
Moore is a freelance journalist based in El Paso.