The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. returns 100 migrant children to overcrowded border facility as HHS says it is out of space

Health and Human Services Sec. Alex Azar said the department does not have capacity to shelter more unaccompanied children that cross the U.S.-Mexico border. (Video: C-SPAN)

Specialized shelters meant to house migrant children apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border are “at capacity,” Trump administration officials said, arguing Tuesday that a $4.5 billion emergency spending package is desperately needed to provide safe shelter for hundreds of children languishing in the concrete cells of U.S. Border Patrol stations.

Immigration and health authorities have scrambled in recent days to move hundreds of migrant children out of one Border Patrol station in Clint, Tex., after lawyers who visited the facility described scenes of sick and dirty children without their parents and inconsolable toddlers in the care of other children.

The alleged conditions raised the specter that masses of migrant children — some still in infancy — who had arrived unaccompanied or been separated from their relatives after crossing the border are being exposed to additional trauma as they spend days or weeks in ill-equipped Border Patrol stations, the lawyers said.

Officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which first takes the migrants into custody, and from the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the migrant children’s shelters, characterized the situation as a dire humanitarian crisis but also defended U.S. treatment of young migrants as adhering to the law. And universally, Trump administration officials Tuesday used the moment to urge Congress to swiftly approve billions of dollars in border funding that they say would provide bed space and services for children.

The House passed a $4.5 billion emergency border aid bill late Tuesday, one containing provisions for the treatment of migrant children in U.S. custody amid widespread anger at President Trump’s handling of the crisis. House backing of the measure sets the stage for negotiations with the Senate on its version.

Trump, who has pushed his administration to get tough on immigration, said Tuesday that he is “very concerned” about the conditions in the detention facilities, but he also claimed that the conditions were worse under President Barack Obama.

The apparent chaos involving children at the border comes as Trump tries to navigate a historic surge of migrant families and children at the southern border and as turmoil on Tuesday engulfed his immigration team, with major moves at the Department of Homeland Security.

John Sanders, the acting head of CBP, told staff that he is stepping down July 5, and Trump plans to replace him with Mark Morgan, a tough-talking television analyst and former FBI official who, as acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement director, has advocated hard-line stances, including mass raids against families for which courts have issued deportation.

Mark Morgan to replace John Sanders as border chief, as DHS shake-up continues

But it is the children in U.S. custody who have continued to create the most significant public challenges for the administration, which has struggled to care for them, keep up with the volume and address allegations of mistreatment.

A CBP official said Tuesday that the allegations of child neglect at Clint were being investigated but also that the child detainees in the agency’s custody receive “continuous” access to hygiene products and adequate food while awaiting placement in U.S. shelters designed for children. The official said that the agency has been working closely with HHS to move the unaccompanied children to appropriate shelters and that it had cut the number held in Border Patrol facilities from 2,600 to less than 1,000 in the past week.

The official said that after moving children out of the Clint facility in the past few days to temporary alternatives — including tents and other border facilities — the agency had to return 100 children to the border station Tuesday. A CBP spokesman later said the agency was using the Clint station as a “consolidated” holding facility “to streamline transfer to HHS and to accommodate separate holding areas based on age and gender.”

Viewing U.S. border cells derided as ‘cages,’ Central American officials pledge more immigration cooperation

HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who has been largely absent from the public discussion of migrant children, told reporters at the White House on Monday that the agency has no more room to hold children, despite the fact that federal officials said this month that they are planning to open three emergency shelters to house approximately 3,000 to 4,000 migrant children, two on military bases and one at a facility in southern Texas. Azar and other administration officials said Congress must approve the emergency funding now to deal with the crisis.

“We are full right now. We are full,” Azar said. “We do not have capacity for more of these unaccompanied children who come across the border. And what happens is they get backed up there at the Department of Homeland Security’s facilities because I can’t put someone in a bed that does not exist in our shelters.”

An HHS spokeswoman later amended Azar’s claim to say that the agency’s child shelters are “probably in the upper 90 percentage of being full.”

The agency this month canceled recreational and educational programs for minors in shelters nationwide, saying budget pressures have forced the department to focus just on services that are directly related to the “protection of life and safety.”

Trump administration cancels English classes, soccer, legal aid for unaccompanied child migrants in U.S. shelters

CBP officials have said that Border Patrol stations, designed to hold adult immigrants for short periods, are neither safe nor appropriate places to house unaccompanied children for long stretches. CBP officials said this week that after HHS was able to take only 250 children from Clint, they had transferred the remaining ones out of the facility, placing some in a tent camp in El Paso, before rotating them back to Clint on Tuesday.

Some of the lawyers who visited Clint last week said children had been unable to bathe or properly clothe and feed themselves.

“All of the allegations of civil rights mistreatment are taken seriously,” the CBP official said in a call with reporters, held on the condition of anonymity. The official said hygiene products and food — including new clothing, hand sanitizer, soap and water — are “continuously available.” Showers are available at least every three days, the official said.

The agency staffs licensed monitors to assist children in feeding and bathing, and 85 percent of CBP facilities now have medical coverage through contracts with private companies that provide nurses or other trained medical personnel. Pressed on the lawyers’ descriptions of some children caring for other dirty, inconsolable children, the official said CBP is doing “everything we can.”

“The agents should be commended for what they’re doing,” the official said, adding that agents have volunteered to pitch in and feed babies and help with other tasks when monitors have been “overwhelmed.”

'At capacity'

Barring extraordinary circumstances, unaccompanied migrant children must be transferred out of CBP facilities and into the custody of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement for longer-term shelter within 72 hours of their apprehension, according to U.S. laws and regulations.

But CBP officials and lawyers who have visited Border Patrol stations in recent weeks to monitor the Trump administration’s compliance with one of those regulations, known as the Flores Settlement Agreement, have said hundreds of children are spending days or weeks past that deadline without the specialized care they are afforded under the law.

Hundreds of minors held at U.S. border facilities are there beyond legal time limits

ORR is responsible for placing unaccompanied children in special shelters and with foster families, providing the child detainees with access to beds, medical care, showers and educational activities, while also working to reunite them with their parents or other family members.

“The Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they’re supposed to be sending these children, is at capacity,” said University of San Francisco law professor Bill O. Hing, who was among the six attorneys to interview children at the Clint facility last week. The conditions that lawyers witnessed at the station were first reported by the Associated Press.

Border Patrol’s small, concrete cells were designed to hold adults for short periods, not children for weeks. There are no beds or private space. The hygiene is minimal, and the food — microwaveable burritos, instant soup and sugary drinks, lawyers said — is basic and poor in nutrition.

“ORR is theoretically set up to release the children safely into the United States. That’s what they’re staffed to do. CBP doesn’t have that capacity. They’re all guards,” said Hing, who described being moved to tears by the visible trauma of some of the children he interviewed. “They actually don’t have the infrastructure to be calling the aunt or the uncle, or even the parent who is in the United States, and actually check out whether it’s a safe place to place the child. . . . They don’t have a staff of social workers, whereas ORR does.”

HHS spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer said Monday that ORR’s ability to accommodate the unaccompanied children on the southern border was growing “more dire each day.”

“We cannot stress enough the urgency of immediate passage of emergency supplemental funding,” Stauffer said. “This funding will provide resources that our departments need to respond to the current crisis, enable us to protect the life and safety of unaccompanied alien children, and help us to continue providing the full range of services to the children in our custody.”

ORR says it has received referrals for 52,000 unaccompanied children since October, including 10,000 just in May. Officials say the flood of migrant families and unaccompanied children across the southwest border means ORR probably will shelter more children this year than it ever has.

“We have a humanitarian crisis at the border brought on by a broken immigration system,” Stauffer said, adding that the agency is urging Congress to take “swift action.”

Focus on separations

Critics say the Trump administration has compounded the crisis by unnecessarily separating children from adult relatives, and through the detention and mass arrests of migrant families and others with no criminal history, instead of focusing enforcement efforts on serious criminals.

“There are so many unaccompanied kids because the U.S. government is ripping families apart at the border when those families consist of children and non-primary or non-parent caretakers,” said Clara Long, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, which has documented abuses along the border.

Both ORR and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees arrests, detentions and deportations of migrants, have been facing mounting criticism from immigration attorneys, lawmakers and human rights monitors for their treatment of migrant detainees and their management of public funds.

Migrant detainees have described limited access to soap, toothbrushes and medical care. Lawyers touring another Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Tex., expressed outrage this month after they encountered a 17-year-old girl struggling to care for herself and her infant while using a wheelchair due to leg pain, which she attributed to complications from an emergency C-section she had in Mexico before crossing into the United States.

U.S. officials say there are dozens of teenage mothers with young children in Border Patrol facilities awaiting placement with HHS, a particularly challenging group because both mother and child are technically unaccompanied minors. HHS says it has shelters that provide specialized services for such cases, including parenting classes and neonatal care. But the agency has been unable to find enough bed space.

At least six migrant children have died since September after being taken into custody. Officials have meanwhile quarantined thousands of other adults and children in recent months in an effort to halt the spread of infectious diseases including influenza, mumps and chickenpox.

Two of the babies that lawyers saw in captivity in Clint had to be rushed to a hospital due to diarrhea and vomiting, Hing said.

ORR has blocked most public access to its children’s shelters, which have been plagued by allegations of child abuse and neglect, and questions of inappropriate political influence, and where many of the child detainees wait months to be reunited with family members.

Citing the potential for human trafficking and fraud, the Trump administration separates all children who arrive with adult relatives who are not their parents, even though lawyers say many travel with older brothers, sisters, aunts or uncles to reunite with a parent who is already in the United States. DHS has concerns that some migrants are traveling to the United States with children who are not theirs to avoid detention and deportation, but officials have not provided statistics on such cases. The administration has asked parents to participate in DNA tests and submit other evidence to assert their relationship to their children. Lawyers claim some children have been separated from parents for minor or insufficient reasons.

“There are so many other options — you don’t have to take them into detention to begin with,” Hing said. “A number of the children I interviewed came with aunts or uncles. It really isn’t necessary to take into custody many of these folks who are coming with families.”

Barring criminal records, families that include parents and their children are typically allowed to remain together, and federal authorities have released many of them into the United States to await court dates that might be months or even years away.

Releasing them until their immigration court dates — for which a majority return, according to federal data analyzed by Syracuse University — would “ease a lot of the pressure overnight,” Hing said.

Meagan Flynn contributed to this report.