Following reports by Reason and other media outlets, and complaints from federal whistleblowers, lawyers representing minors in U.S. immigration custody say the Biden administration is housing migrant youths in "inherently unsafe and inappropriate" conditions.
In a motion filed Monday asking a federal court to order the release of migrant youths from two of the Biden administration's so-called emergency intake sites (EIS), lawyers for the National Center for Youth Law argue that the substandard living conditions inside the sites violate the terms of the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement. That agreement binds the federal government to certain standards regarding the treatment of migrant children.
The main focus of the complaint is two emergency sites in Pecos, Texas, and inside the Fort Bliss Army base near El Paso, Texas. The Fort Bliss site is the largest in the network of emergency shelters the Biden administration set up earlier this year to move unaccompanied migrant children out of Customs and Border Protection detention centers.
In theory, these sites, run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are a way station for kids who are waiting to be reunited with relatives or other connections in the U.S. In fact, staffing problems and other issues left many kids stuck in limbo for up to a month or more in conditions that federal whistleblowers, lawyers, and the children themselves have described as filthy and chaotic.
"For months, the children we have met with at the EISs have shared one horror story after the next," Leecia Welch, senior director of child welfare and legal advocacy at the National Center for Youth Law, said in a press release. "Children have described spending the bulk of the day on or around their cots crammed in massive tents with hundreds of other children, suffering escalating anxiety attacks from the stress of the harsh EIS environment, going weeks without clean clothes or underwear, and spending months without going outside for some fresh air. While some of the unsafe EIS facilities have been closed, mega tent encampments and mining mancamp sites like Fort Bliss and Pecos remain open with no end in sight."
Accompanying the motion are more than a dozen declarations from youths being held in the EIS system. In one declaration, a girl detained at a site in Pecos EIS for more than 40 days said: "When we eat meals, the meat and eggs are sometimes a bit raw…Sometimes, I worry about eating the food because I don't want to get sick. I know of two kids [who] threw up after eating the food.…I have switched case managers three different times – I think that they just abandoned my case. No one has explained why I have had so many different case managers."
Federal employees detailed to the Fort Bliss shelter told Reason in May that there was rampant mismanagement inside the secretive site: There were persistent underwear shortages; children were crammed inside loud, dirty tents; contractors and federal employees were unqualified to work with children; and there were disturbing incidents of medical neglect.
Monday's legal filings also cite an audiotape of a training session for federal employees at the Fort Bliss EIS, first obtained by Reason. In the tape, the trainer says there has been inappropriate contact between minors and staff.
"We have already caught staff with minors inappropriately," the trainer says. "Is that OK with you guys? I hope not. We have also caught minors with minors, which is, you know—we've got teenagers in this shelter. What's happening with teenagers? Hormones, raging out of control. It's important that we maintain safety and vigilance. Be vigilant. Stop what is happening. If you don't watch these kids, and you're not the one who is going to step in, who's going to? Be that person to stand up for the minors because that's what we're here for."
The tapes were later included in a whistleblower complaint by two federal employees who were detailed to the Fort Bliss shelter between April and June. The whistleblowers said they witnessed intolerable noise, filth, and odors inside the large tents where children are housed; contractors who were wholly unqualified to work with youths; and hostility, indifference, and resistance to providing medical treatment to sick kids.
In June, numerous other testimonials by migrant youths were filed in federal court describing limited time outside, sporadic showers, and being served inadequate or unsafe food, including raw chicken and foul-smelling hamburgers.
Earlier this month, 33 members of Congress sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra expressing "immense concern and horror" at the whistleblower allegations and urging the HHS inspector general to immediately launch an investigation.