For migrant children in federal care, a ‘sense of desperation’

By Eileen Sullivan

In a federal shelter in Dallas, migrant children sleep in a windowless convention center room under fluorescent lights that never go dark.

At a military base in El Paso, Texas, teenagers pile onto bunk cots, and some say they have gone days without bathing.

And in Erie, Pennsylvania, problems began emerging days after a shelter opens: “Fire safety system is a big concern,” an internal report noted. Some of the hot water heaters were not working, and lice was “a big issue and seems to be increasing.”

Early this year, children crossing the southwestern border in record numbers were crammed into Customs and Border Protection’s cold-floored, jail-like detention facilities. They slept side by side on mats with foil blankets, almost always far longer than the legal limit of 72 hours.

Republicans declared it a crisis. Democrats and immigration groups denounced the conditions, which erupted into an international embarrassment for President Joe Biden, who had campaigned on a return to compassion in the immigration system.

The administration responded by rapidly setting up temporary, emergency shelters, including some that could house thousands of children. But the next potential crisis is coming into view.

“I know the administration wants to take a victory lap for moving children out of Border Patrol stations — and they deserve credit for doing that,” said Leecia Welch, a lawyer and the senior director of the legal advocacy and child welfare practice at the National Center for Youth Law, a nonprofit law firm focused on low-income children. “But the truth is, thousands of traumatized children are still lingering in massive detention sites on military bases or convention centers, and many have been relegated to unsafe and unsanitary conditions.”

Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services, put the best face on the situation in an interview Friday. Conditions at the emergency facilities varied, he said. “It’s site by site.”

On Thursday, he visited the department’s shelter at the convention center in Long Beach, California, where nearly 700 children, mostly ages 12 and under, are staying, a fraction of the 20,000 migrant minors in government custody.

“I was not only gratified to see that it’s working, but I was actually uplifted by what I saw,” Becerra said. It was his first shelter tour since he was confirmed in mid-March.

There is broad agreement that the emergency shelters, run by the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, are an improvement over the Border Patrol facilities. But interviews with children’s advocates and a review of weeks of internal reports obtained by The New York Times paint a picture of a shelter system with wildly varying conditions, some of which are far below the standard of care that the Biden administration has promised.

“No foster care system in America would allow kids to remain in these sorts of places for weeks or months,” said Welch, who has been visiting shelters and interviewing children about their stays.

None of the shelters is open to the public, and Welch said she and members of her team were not permitted to take photographs there. Her organization monitors the government’s adherence to a 1997 settlement that set conditions for how immigrant children are detained in the United States. Many groups working with the federal government to provide care are not allowed to talk about what they see.

One of the children Welch met was a 10-year-old girl who had arrived at the border alone because her mother had been kidnapped on their journey north. She spent nearly three weeks in Border Patrol custody this year before she was transferred to the shelter in Erie, Pennsylvania.

The heat was broken in three rooms, including one with an isolated child who was sick with COVID-19 and complained about being cold. There were not enough clothes for the children to wear in Pennsylvania’s chilly early springtime. And the shelter was understaffed, with volunteers “overextended, stressed and fatigued,” according to a government assessment.

Cleaning was infrequent, as was trash removal. Gas leaked inside and outside where the children were living. The shelter closed April 26.

Another shelter that opened in Houston closed months before the date officials had planned.

The building, which housed 500 girls ages 13 to 17, had problems from the start, Welch said.

She described the shelter as a warehouse with no access to the outdoors, where children went for days without bathing. The food made them sick, and some had fainting spells from not eating. They were not allowed to go to the bathroom after 10 p.m., she said.

These emergency shelters are not bound by the law that sets a standard of care, and they are ordinarily overseen by the refugee office. The network of licensed shelters, with room for fewer than 10,000 children, is not big enough to handle the surge of migrants this year. Even that limited capacity decreased during the Trump administration, Biden aides say.

The emergency facilities were supposed to house migrant children for very short stays, but minors are remaining in Department of Health and Human Services custody for about a month.

Modest improvements recently have meant that more children are being discharged from government care each day than are being transferred in from Border Patrol. On Monday, 427 children were released from government custody, and 358 were transferred in, according to recent data.

But unaccompanied children are still coming to the border; under Biden administration policy, they are being let in, not turned away as they were under the Trump administration.

At an emergency shelter in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez, an immigration lawyer, described a facility intended to hold 2,000 children, mostly teenage boys. “It is literally a big ballroom with no exterior windows and typical fluorescent lighting” that never turns off, she said.

For weeks, internal documents have indicated an unmet need for urgent mental health consultations for the children. At times, there have been no mental health staff members on site.

The Dallas shelter is closing at the end of the month because the lease is expiring, as is another emergency shelter in San Antonio. The Biden administration is looking to house more children at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, which has the largest emergency shelter in the network with room for more than 5,000 children. According to internal documents, the administration is planning to house up to 10,000 children there, half of whom would be 12 and under. About 4,400 teenagers currently live there.

The children “generally describe not feeling cared for and a sense of desperation,” Welch said.

Becerra said he blamed the immigration system for the situation.

“If we’re going to have to function with this broken immigration system, let’s at least do it right, let’s do what we can,” he said.

“I don’t know what their ultimate fate will be,” he added. “But I do know this — that while they are in my custody, they are going to be safe, and they’re going to be cared for.”

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