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Attorneys seek emergency court order to end ‘health and welfare crisis’ in migrant detention centers

Migrants are gathered inside the fence of a makeshift detention center in El Paso on March 27. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

Attorneys have asked a federal judge to order immediate inspections of migrant detention facilities by public health professionals, arguing that if a court does not intervene, more children may fall ill and possibly die in U.S. custody.

The filing on Wednesday night comes after lawyers interviewed dozens of children in U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities along the border and reported rampant sickness, as well as a lack of access to basic hygiene items and proper nutrition.

Attorneys described the conditions as “flagrant and persistent” violations of the law and asked the judge to find the United States in contempt. A 1997 consent decree known as the Flores Settlement Agreement requires that immigrant children be held in “safe and sanitary” conditions. Wednesday’s complaint is a continuation of a decades-long legal fight over whether the government is meeting that standard.

Peter Schey, who has been litigating this case since it was filed in 1985, said this is the first time attorneys have sought emergency relief from a judge.

“In 33 years of representing unaccompanied detained children, through several administrations, both Republican and Democrat, we have never seen an administration act quite as callously and cruelly toward children as this one,” Schey, president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, told The Washington Post. “We have never seen the kind of widespread illness, malnutrition and deaths as under this administration. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

At least six child migrants have died since September.

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CBP declined to comment, citing pending litigation; the Justice Department also declined to comment. Earlier on Wednesday, CBP officials disputed many of the attorneys’ and children’s claims, saying all minors are adequately fed and cared for, and that the agency is doing its best even though CBP facilities are not designed for prolonged detention of children.

“Our agents are risking their health, their lives, their marriages . . . to enforce the rule of law humanely,” Aaron Hull, chief of the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, told reporters, as Robert Moore reported for The Post from Clint, Tex.

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The attorneys working on the children’s behalf are seeking three emergency remedies from U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee. They are asking for an immediate inspection of all CBP facilities in the El Paso and Rio Grande Valley sectors, and that medical professionals be granted access to children there to assess their medical and psychological needs.

The third request is for an “intensive case management team” tasked with alleviating a severe backlog of children awaiting transfer out of CBP custody to the Department of Health and Human Services. The law requires the transfer to HHS within three days, so the federal agency can work to place children with parents or guardians already in the United States. But some minors have been in detention for as long as three weeks, attorneys said.

Schey attributed the overcrowding to HHS’s failure to follow the law in a timely manner.

“It’s a crisis of their own making,” he said.

The attorneys’ emergency requests come during a tumultuous week. Public outrage over conditions at the detention facilities reached a boiling point as lawmakers rushed to pass a $4.5 billion humanitarian aid package. The House and Senate each passed separate versions of the bill this week, although key differences still need to be reconciled. An HHS spokeswoman told The Post on Tuesday that the funding is essential to eliminating the backlog of children awaiting placement with guardians, a situation she said was growing “more dire each day.”

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Senators debating the bill Wednesday pointed to a graphic photo showing a drowned father and his baby facedown in the Rio Grande to underscore the urgency of the situation. The photo ignited renewed fury over the crisis at the border, coming on the heels of allegations last week of poor conditions in the Clint detention facility.

On Wednesday, CBP officials took the rare step of offering reporters a limited tour of that facility, where 117 children were detained. Officials acknowledged it was overcrowded, housing as many as 700 migrants in recent weeks even though capacity is 106.

But Hull, the CBP chief in El Paso, pushed back on claims about inadequate food, water and hygiene products. He said children are given a toothbrush each night, thrown away after use, and that they are allowed to shower every two days. He said they are given snacks and three meals a day: instant oatmeal, ramen noodles and a microwaved burrito.

His description of the meals matches accounts from children, who said they are still left hungry. But his description of access to hygienic care contradicts what children reported to the attorneys.

Holly S. Cooper, co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California at Davis, told The Post that the children’s legal team wants a judge to evaluate the evidence.

“If they are going to discredit the children’s testimony, they can subpoena them for a hearing,” Cooper said. “But because the children were uniform and consistent in their accounts, we have no reason to doubt what they described.”

Wednesday night’s legal filings include excerpts from those firsthand accounts from interviews conducted between June 10 and June 21, as well as declarations from doctors who expressed alarm at the children’s well-being. The doctors said many of the sick minors belong in hospitals. In fact, five infants were admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital after one doctor, Dolly Lucio Sevier, encountered them during a visit, according to the complaint.

Sevier and other doctors expressed particular concern for infants and their teenage mothers, noting that a lack of proper nutrition and inadequate access to water prevented breast-feeding moms from producing enough breast milk. Accounts included that of a premature newborn whose 17-year-old mother in a wheelchair struggled to keep her warm in a “dirty and matted towel,” an account previously reported by the Associated Press. In another case, an 18-month-old got sick with a cough two days after arriving at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Tex. When the baby’s aunt alerted guards, she said they were taken to a medical facility.

“In the medical facility, we slept in a crowded room on the floor, with only aluminum blankets, and no mat to sleep on. It was very cold,” the woman said. “When we arrived, it was so crowded there was no place to lay down on the floor so people had to sleep sitting up. . . . There was a bathroom inside the room. Everyone there was sick, both mothers and children. Being around so many sick people has made me sick.”

In other excerpts, children and their young mothers said they showered only once every five days or longer, and never had any soap to wash their hands in the meantime.

“I have been in the U.S. for six days and I have never been offered a shower or been able to brush my teeth,” said one person held at Clint. “There is no soap here and our clothes are dirty.”

“We have only been allowed to shower and brush our teeth one time since we arrived twelve days ago,” said another detained in McAllen.

Many said they couldn’t sleep. Sevier said in a declaration that combined with the lack of basic sanitation migrants described, the conditions in McAllen “could be compared to torture facilities.”

“Sometimes we each get a mat, but other times we have to share a mat between four people,” one migrant said. “So then I have to sleep directly on the floor with my daughter in my arms. We have only one thin Mylar blanket to share. The lights are always on.”

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