One of the most shocking, if wholly unsurprising, cruelties of the Trump administration has been its treatment of children crossing the United States-Mexico border. Children have not only been separated from their families, they have been forced to live in conditions that are so dire that people from elected officials like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Japanese Americans detained by the U.S. government during World War II have taken to calling Customs and Border Protection (CBP) holding facilities “concentration camps.” And by simple definition, that is what they are—“a place,” as established by Merriam-Webster, “where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained under armed guard.”
At least six children have died while in U.S. custody since September of last year, four of them while being held by CBP. Earlier in June, advocates discovered that CBP was holding a 17-year-old from Guatemala at a Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas along with her prematurely born baby, who advocates argued should have been in a neonatal unit at a hospital. And on Thursday, the Associated Press reported on horrific conditions at a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, where a group of lawyers was astonished by the lack of food and poor sanitation.
Elora Mukherjee, the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, was part of the legal team that visited the Border Patrol facility in Clint. “In my 12 years years of doing this work I have repeatedly been heartbroken by what I’ve seen. But I have never seen conditions as degrading and inhumane as what I saw in Clint this week,” Mukherjee told Jezebel. “It is appalling, the conditions there. They are just unbelievable.”
Jezebel spoke with Mukherjee about the treatment of children in Clint, what has changed since she first began her work as an immigration attorney under the presidency of George W. Bush, and what she and other advocates are pushing for now. Customs and Border Protection did not return Jezebel’s request for comment by publication time.* Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Tell us a little bit about your work.
ELORA MUKHERJEE: I’ve been representing children and families in immigration detention facilities on and off since 2007. And so I do a significant amount of work at the southern border, and have also investigated, as part of the Flores settlement, other facilities not on the border [but] where children are in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement: so where unaccompanied minors are detained without their parents.
In my 12 years years of doing this work I have repeatedly been heartbroken by what I’ve seen. But I have never seen conditions as degrading and inhumane as what I saw in Clint this week. And it is appalling, the conditions there. They are just unbelievable.
What did you see?
So children are hungry, or they’re not being given sufficient food. They’re not being given edible food. So many so the children told me that they get food in trays and everyone gets the same ration of food, regardless of their age. And there is no accommodation made for children’s different caloric needs. So 17-year-old boys are getting the same food as 1-year-old girls. Breastfeeding mothers—and I met with several—need more calories so that they can produce breastmilk. And they’re also not being given any accommodations. There’s not age-appropriate food for babies or toddlers. There is limited access to water that tastes good. Children have told me that the water tastes like chlorine and it’s horrible.
Many children haven’t bathed for days and days and days as they crossed the border. Some haven’t bathed in more than three weeks. There is a stench that emanates from them. Unfortunately, many of the children there, they’re wearing the same dirty clothes that they crossed the border in. The overwhelming majority of them have had no changes of clothes since crossing the border, so they’re wearing clothes that are stained in bodily fluids—including urine for the young children, including mucus. Almost everyone is sick. And for the breastfeeding mothers, they have breast milk over their shirt. The toilets are not adequately cleaned or maintained. There’s no access to soap, to wash hands.
I have been doing this work with hundreds of kids in immigration detention, but I’ve never seen children as traumatized as the ones who I’ve seen there.
How long are children being held in these conditions?
The children are subject to really long periods of detention. So under the Flores Settlement Agreement, children are not supposed to be in Customs and Border Protection facilities for longer than 72 hours. We’ve seen children there for nearly a month and they’re locked in rooms, cages almost all day long.
Most of them don’t have access to any activities. Most of them don’t have access to a television. Most of them haven’t been outside—and three of the children who had been given opportunities to go outside told me that they’re supposed to be playing, but they can’t play because they need to conserve their energy. It is so, so heartbreaking.
Girls and boys who are children themselves are being told by the guards that they must care for children who are much younger than them and unrelated to them. There was an infant who was being taken care of for seven or eight days by an unrelated teenager because the baby’s mother had to go to the hospital, and another eight-year-old child was being told that she had to take care of a four-year-old who was very sick who was not related to her. Most of the children have not brushed their teeth since crossing the border. A few of them have had very limited access to toothbrushes and have been able to brush their teeth two times.
For most of the girls, there’s no privacy to use the bathroom. They don’t want to use the bathrooms, because they’re embarrassed because they have no privacy and boys can see them using the bathrooms. And some of the boys also have limited access to privacy when using the bathroom. One of the boys told a member of our team that he tries not to eat so he won’t have to use the bathroom.
There is insufficient access to clean baby bottles. Some of the baby bottles are being used for three days on end without being washed, which is totally not how you’re supposed to care for babies.
The Trump administration seems to be overtly flouting the Flores Settlement, which sets limits on how long children can be detained and under what conditions, as if it no longer applies. There’s been recent news, for example, about Department of Justice attorneys arguing that immigrant children shouldn’t necessarily have access to things like toothbrushes or soap.
Absolutely. The government’s interpretation strikes me as completely at odds with the language of Flores. So if you look at the agreement, it requires the government to house immigrant children in facilities that are quote, safe and sanitary, and provide them with, quote, access to toilets and sinks, drinking water and food as appropriate, medical assistance if the minor is in need of emergency services, and adequate temperature control and ventilation. And none of those standards seem to be met at Clint.
How you would compare what you’ve seen since you started your work with what you’ve seen at places like Clint? Because conditions were bad before Trump took office. What’s changed, and what hasn’t changed?
I started working on these issues when George W. Bush was president, and he opened the first family detention center for refugee children and their parents in Taylor, Texas called the T. Don Hutto Residential Center. And I was appalled then to see children in prison uniforms locked in their cells nearly all day without access to sufficient food, educational opportunities, or chances to go outside. But at least in 2007, they were detained with their parent.
Here in Clint, we still see families being separated. And in the “Ms. L” litigation brought by the ACLU, the government just revealed that between last June, when separations were supposed to be stopped, until this May, more than 700 families have been separated, and those continue to happen.
I’ve consistently been appalled by what I’ve seen, but I’ve never seen anything so bad. What strikes me is the length of time that children are being detained in CBP custody, and what seems to be a pervasive and immediate health crisis.
There are so many children at Clint and also at Ursula where my colleagues went last week that have been diagnosed with the flu. And that includes very young children, including infants and babies, and the lack of access to basic hygiene means that the virus is spreading very, very quickly.
What are you and other legal advocates calling for in response to all this?
All the children in the custody of the federal government are protected and have rights under the Flores settlement agreement, reached in 1997. It’s still supposed to protect children today, and we rely on that agreement. What we’re calling for is immediate congressional hearings to address the spread of infectious diseases. To require access to basic sanitation, clean water, to stop forced child labor as older girls—meaning a seven-year-old—are required to take care of two-year-olds.
We’re asking that Congress demand humane living conditions and investigate the temperatures inside the cells and investigate the use of force by CBP against children.
Children should not be in CBP custody for longer than 72 hours. That is what the law requires. Children need to be released. Every child I spoke with has family members in the United States who are desperate to be reunited with their children. They are willing to do everything the U.S. government requires to have their children back.
Update 6/23/19, 2:58 p.m.: A Customs and Border Protection official has sent Jezebel the following statement:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) leverages our limited resources to provide the best care possible to those in our custody, especially children. As DHS and CBP leadership have noted numerous times, our short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations and we urgently need additional humanitarian funding to manage this crisis. CBP works closely with our partners at the Department of Health and Human Services to transfer unaccompanied children to their custody as soon as placement is identified, and as quickly and expeditiously as possible to ensure proper care.All allegations of civil rights abuses or mistreatment in CBP detention are taken seriously and investigated to the fullest extent possible.