At detention facilities, migrant children plead for basics: food, medicine, soap and a bit of solace

Posted at 9:12 AM, Jun 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-27 13:45:41-04

They describe migrant detention cells as cages. Teen mothers just want clean clothes for their babies. Others say their children need to see doctors.

A scared 5-year-old boy separated from his dad pleads for medicine for his cough.

Some detainees make the most basic requests: a blanket, toothbrush, soap, a bite to eat, somewhere to wash their hands. One boy says a modicum of solace would go a long way.

“I am in a room with dozens of other boys,” the 17-year-old told lawyers representing the migrant children. “Some have been as young as 3 or 4 years old. Some cry. Right now, there is a 12-year-old who cries a lot. Others try to comfort him. One of the officers makes fun of those who cry.”

These are a few stories gathered earlier this month by lawyers for the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, which is asking a federal judge to hold President Donald Trump’s administration in contempt and order immediate improvements at the child detention facilities.

The lawyers identified the children only by age, gender and nationality in most cases. Many of the youths say they’re trying to reach family members living in the United States.

Crowded conditions are a common theme, and many children relay that day after day they receive the same meals of yogurt, oatmeal, soup, cold sandwiches, juice, burritos and cookies. They complain of a lack of vegetables.

Some mothers say their babies received formula, while a handful say the formula made their babies sick.

Though the lawsuit cites centers in El Paso, Texas, and the Rio Grande Valley, the lawyers’ batch of anecdotes include stories from a US Customs and Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, and from the Clint, Texas, facility that reporters were allowed to tour Wednesday.

While Border Patrol officials showed the journalists pallets of food, boxes of toiletries and children playing soccer and braiding hair, a CBP source with firsthand knowledge of the facility told CNN, “Typical. The agency prepped for you guys.”

The stories vary, with an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy telling the lawyers that while he has not showered or changed clothes and he endures crowded conditions at the Clint facility, the kids are able to play and draw and get three meals a day.

“There are always cookies, but the food does not fill you up and I am hungry. I can go to the bathroom when I need to (it is in the room) and there is soap and water to wash my hands. I am not scared. No one scolds me or is mean here. It is OK, but I want to see my parents.”

A 12-year-old Guatemalan boy’s story paints a far different portrait of conditions: “I’m hungry here at Clint all the time. I’m so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger. Sometimes I wake up from hunger at 4 a.m., sometimes at other hours.

“I’m too scared to ask the officials here for any more food, even though there is not enough food here for me.”

Here are more stories chronicled by the lawyers:

• Dr. Dolly Lucio Sevier, a pediatrician who interviewed 39 children: “The conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities. That is, extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water or adequate food. … All 39 detainees had no access to hand-washing during their entire time in custody, including no hand-washing available after bathroom use.”

• Honduran mother, age redacted, at Ursula detention facility in McAllen: “I have been here without bathing for 21 days. I have seen that when we try to complain about the conditions, then the (officers) want to know what we said. Then they start yelling at us, saying things like, ‘You don’t belong here,’ ‘Go back to where you came from,’ ‘You are pigs,’ ‘You came here to ruin my country.’ They try to intimidate us. I have seen officers hit other detainees in the stomach.”

• A 15-year-old from El Salvador: “A Border Patrol agent came in our room with a 2-year-old boy and asked us, ‘Who wants to take care of this little boy?’ Another girl said she would take care of him but lost interest after a few hours and so I started taking care of him. … I feed the 2-year-old boy, change his diaper and play with him. He is sick. He has a cough and a runny nose and scabs on his lips.”

• A 17-year-old Guatemalan girl: “Three days ago my baby soiled his clothes. I had no place to wash the clothes so I could not put them back on my baby because when he went to the bathroom his poop came out of his diaper and all over his clothing. Since then, my baby of only three months has only been wearing a small little jacket made of T-shirt material. I have nothing else for my son to wear.”

• The aforementioned 12-year-old Guatemalan boy: “The guards at the second facility were mean and scary. They yelled at us. One day the guards demanded to know who had the food. ‘Whoever has food will go to prison,’ they yelled. … They found one kid who was about 15 or 16 years old who had a burrito, pudding and juice. The officials handcuffed his wrists. My cousin and I were very shocked and scared.”

• An 8-year-old Honduran girl: “My sister has been very sick. The doctor told her not to cry because if she cries she will get sicker. … One of the children in our cell is mean to us and tells us that we can’t play and that we will be locked in a dark room here. I believe her and don’t want to be locked in the dark room.”

• A 16-year-old Honduran girl: “The day after we arrived here, my baby began vomiting and having diarrhea. I asked to see a doctor and they did not take us. I asked again the next day and the guard said, ‘She doesn’t have the face of a sick baby. She doesn’t need to see a doctor.’ My baby daughter has not had medicine since we first arrived. She has a very bad cough, fever and continues to vomit and have diarrhea.”

• A 17-year-old Honduran girl: “I was given a blanket and a mattress, but then, at 3 a.m., the guards took the blanket and mattress. My baby was left sleeping on the floor. In fact, almost every night, the guards wake us at 3 a.m. and take away our sleeping mattresses and blankets. They leave babies, even little babies of two or three months, sleeping on the cold floor. For me, because I am so pregnant, sleeping on the floor is very painful for my back and hips. I think the guards act this way to punish us.”

• A 12-year-old Ecuadorian girl at Clint: “The officials here are very bad to us. During the night when we’re trying to sleep they come in and wake us up, yelling and scaring us. … The guards who are yelling don’t speak much Spanish, so it’s hard to understand what they’re saying. My sisters and I are very scared.”