The image kept replaying in attorney W. Warren Binford’s mind after she left a migrant detention facility last week in Clint, Tex., where hundreds of children were held: The 15-year-old mother, her baby covered in mucus.
Child care was not the forte of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Binford could see. Here, in a warehouse filled with filthy kids who had not bathed in days, some with lice and influenza, it was kids taking care of kids.
“We were just horrified,” Binford, director of the clinical law program at Willamette University, told The Washington Post, adding: “It was just horrendous, the stories that we were hearing.”
On Sunday, faced with mounting reports of grave conditions at border detention centers overwhelmed by an influx of families and children crossing the border, President Trump and Vice President Pence responded by blaming congressional Democrats. News anchors asked what they planned to do if they were impatient with Congress, but Trump and Pence remained focused on demanding action on a $4.6 billion emergency spending bill intended for the border crisis, with $2.88 billion reserved for unaccompanied minors.
“We’re doing a fantastic job under the circumstances,” Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press,” soon after agreeing that conditions were “terrible.” “The Democrats aren’t even approving giving us money. Where is the money? You know what? The Democrats are holding up the humanitarian aid.”
On CBS’s “Face The Nation,” Pence complained that Congress “refused to increase bed space in the appropriations bill” earlier this year. “They continue to delay efforts on additional humanitarian support.”
“So we just have to accept the conditions being described here?” host Margaret Brennan asked.
Pence said no, before noting Trump’s negotiations with Mexico to stop the flow of migrants, and quickly returning to Congress: “The president and I are going to stand strong, call on Congress to do their job,” he said.
The emergency bill passed through the Senate Appropriations Committee last week with bipartisan support, although House Democrats had been drafting their own version of the legislation. Earlier this year, Democrats opposed increasing the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds (which is different from the bed space in CBP detention facilities) because they believed that would force ICE to prioritize enforcement efforts on criminals.
Democrats expressed outrage about reports of poor conditions in migrant detention centers. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif)., called the conditions “child abuse happening at the hands of the United States government." Some House Democrats threatened to refuse more money for immigration authorities.
“These radicalized criminal agencies are destroying families and killing children,” Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said in a joint statement. “It is absolutely unconscionable to even consider giving one more dollar to support this President’s deportation force that openly commits human rights abuses and refuses to be held accountable to the American people.”
Concerns about CBP facilities reached a fever pitch this weekend after Binford and a team of several other attorneys traveled to the Clint facility to interview dozens of detained children.
The attorneys were investigating Clint as part of ongoing litigation monitoring whether the Trump administration is complying with a 1997 consent decree. Known as the Flores Settlement Agreement, it requires that the federal government keep immigrant children in “safe and sanitary” conditions while they are in custody and that they are transferred out of detention quickly.
The attorneys typically do not speak to the media about what they find inside these facilities because of the pending litigation — but after visiting Clint, they felt they could not remain silent, Binford said.
Some children had been detained for as many as three weeks, she said, although by law, child migrants are supposed to be transferred to the custody of Health and Human Services within three days. They should then be placed with a parent, relative or guardian already living in the United States. The failure by the federal government to do so — rather than Congress’s failure to send aid, Binford argued — has left children languishing in overcrowded facilities meant for adults, with some sleeping on cold concrete because there are not enough beds and mats, she said.
“By the end of the second day, we were on the phone with the legal counsel on the case saying, ‘These kids are at risk. There’s gonna be another kid who dies if we don’t do something.’ This is not just about complying with the Flores agreement,” she said. “This is inhumane.”
Binford saw a 4-year-old with hair so matted and dirty she thought it would have to be cut off. The child had not bathed in more than a week, she said. She witnessed a 14-year-old caring for a 2-year-old without a diaper, shrugging as the baby urinated as they sat at a table because she did not know what to do.
Some of the kids had showered or brushed their teeth only once or twice in three weeks, Binford said. Some did not have toothbrushes at all. The warehouse had portable toilets; the main building had toilets in plain view, which humiliated the kids, who tried to cover themselves with blankets as they sat on the toilet, she said.
Some had been separated from their parents and siblings for undisclosed reasons, she said, and some were inconsolable.
“One of the terrible ironies is one of the little girls we interviewed was separated from her mother, her father, her younger siblings,” Binford said. “Her father told her not to worry, that they were going to take her to a place that was better for children.
“And then they brought her to this facility.”
In a statement to The Washington Post early Monday, CBP said the agency “leverages limited resources to provide the best care possible to those in our custody, especially children.”
“As DHS and CBP leadership have noted numerous times, our short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations and we urgently need additional humanitarian funding to manage this crisis,” the agency said. “CBP works closely with our partners at the Department of Health and Human Services to transfer unaccompanied children to their custody as soon as placement is identified, and as quickly and expeditiously as possible to ensure proper care.
“All allegations of civil rights abuses or mistreatment in CBP detention are taken seriously and investigated to the fullest extent possible,” the statement added.
The attorneys involved in the Flores case have been demanding in court that the government provide children with basic necessities such as toothbrushes, soap and adequate sleeping conditions since the Obama administration.
Last week, a Justice Department lawyer argued that the government shouldn’t be required to provide those basic hygiene products because none of them explicitly appear in the Flores agreement — a position that astonished all three judges on a panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Pence appeared to dismiss the attorney’s argument against providing toiletries during his Sunday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union,” saying, “I can’t speak to what that lawyer was saying.” He agreed with Tapper that “of course” hygiene items such as toothbrushes and soap are necessary for being “safe and sanitary” but again blamed Congress.
“It’s one of the reasons we asked for more bed space. . . . It’s one of the reasons we continue to call on Congress to give DHS Customs and Border Protection additional resources at the border,” Pence said.
“This is the wealthiest nation in the world,” Tapper said. “We have money to give toothpaste and soap and blankets to these kids in this facility in El Paso County — right now we do."
“Of course we do,” Pence said.
“So why aren’t we?” Tapper said.
Again, Pence pointed to Congress as the problem.