Children detained in an overcrowded government-run tent facility at the US-Mexico border say they haven’t been able to shower for days or contact their parents, according to lawyers who interviewed them this week.
Lawyers from the National Center for Youth Law spoke with about a dozen children in Donna, Texas, this week, according to Leecia Welch, the center’s senior director of advocacy and child welfare.
The children were terrified, crying and worried about not being able to speak with family members, Welch said. Some said they hadn’t seen sunlight in days. Others said if they were lucky, they would go outside for 20 minutes every few days.
“Donna is quickly becoming a humanitarian crisis,” Welch told CNN. “We understand the administration inherited this disaster, but I cannot stress enough how urgent the situation is with the growing number of young unaccompanied children. We spoke to numerous distraught children who don’t understand why they can’t talk to their parents, see their siblings at Donna, or get some fresh air.”
The allegations, first reported by The Associated Press and CBS News, come as concerns mount over the growing number of children in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody. Earlier this week, CNN reported that there were more than 3,700 unaccompanied migrant children in the agency’s custody – a record high.
On Saturday, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced he is directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support efforts for 90 days to shelter unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border.
“I am incredibly proud of the agents of the Border Patrol, who have been working around the clock in difficult circumstances to take care of children temporarily in our care,” Mayorkas wrote in a statement. “Yet, as I have said many times, a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child. Our goal is to ensure that unaccompanied children are transferred to HHS (Health and Human Services) as quickly as possible, consistent with legal requirements and in the best interest of the children.”
All the children the lawyers interviewed are being detained in a temporary tent facility in Donna.
Earlier this week, a DHS official told CNN the Donna facility was “significantly overcrowded,” describing conditions administration officials observed when they visited last weekend.
“The number of kids is alarming and concerning and not good at all,” the official said.
Attorney: Children are scared, trying to console each other
The team of attorneys was given access to speak with the children because they’re monitoring government compliance with the Flores settlement, a 1997 agreement that limits the length of time and conditions under which US officials can detain immigrant children.
Welch said attorneys were allowed to enter an area designated for lawyers, but they weren’t allowed to tour areas where children are being housed.
Attorneys were handed a manifest of the facility, which was about 100 pages long, Welch said. Every page listed children under 10 years old, she said.
At the facility, children are divided into pods of about 50, by age and sex, Welch said. That, she said, means siblings of different sex are separated, making the already stressful situation for children even worse.
Most of the children have been at the facility for five to seven days, Welch said, and they’re scared. Because CBP officials are not allowed to hug or console children, children are having to care for each other and console each other, she said.
The attorney said hygiene at the facility is also a concern. Some children get to shower about once a week and sometimes soap runs out, with only shampoo available, she said. One child told Welch she hadn’t showered in six days.
Limited shelter space sparks concern
CBP officials didn’t respond to CNN’s requests for comment on why attorneys weren’t allowed to tour the facility.
Earlier this week, the senior official heading the agency described conditions in the facility to reporters, including three meals provided daily, 24/7 access to snacks and drinks, showers provided at least every 48 hours and a recreation area.
“That’s just some of the things that we’re doing with the children,” said Troy Miller, senior official performing the duties of CBP commissioner. “I tell you, many of us, maybe most of us are parents, fathers, mothers – I myself have a 6-year-old – and these Border Patrol agents go above and beyond every single day to take care of the children.”
The number of children arriving has been outpacing the Biden administration’s ability to place them in shelters overseen by HHS. And due to limited capacity at shelters, children are being held in CBP facilities beyond the 72-hour limit the law requires.
Welch said that what is needed immediately is rapid case management that would allow the children to be placed in HHS care as soon as possible.
Officials have said they are working to increase the pace of processing.
“(W)e continue to struggle with the number of individuals in our custody, especially given the pandemic,” Miller said Wednesday. “We need to move them out quicker.”
In recent days, the number of children in HHS custody has climbed, indicating that the department is gradually absorbing the number of children crossing the US-Mexico border alone, taking them out of Border Patrol facilities and into shelters where they can be cared for.
There are around 8,800 unaccompanied children in HHS custody, the department said Thursday, up from last week when numbers hovered around 7,700.
CNN’s Geneva Sands and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.