Unaccompanied children migrating to the U.S. are suffering abuse at the hands of U.S. immigration officials, according to a formal complaint filed Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by five civil and human rights organizations that are calling for reform to the agency’s immigrant detention policies.
The complaint was filed on behalf of 116 immigrant children—ages five to 17—who crossed into America alone within the last year. It was addressed to DHS Inspector General John Roth and DHS Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Megan Mack, and calls on the agency to “take significant affirmative steps to address the ongoing, systemic abuse” of unaccompanied migrant children being held in short-term holding facilities.
The complaint claims, one in four of the 116 children, surveyed from March to May of this year, reported some form of physical abuse, including sexual assault, beatings, and punishment that involved stress positions by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials.
More than half of the children included in the complaint reported various forms of verbal abuse, including racially and sexually charged comments and death threats. Also, more than half reported the denial of medical care and more than 80 percent of the children reported to having inadequate food and water during detention.
According to federal policy, immigration officials cannot detain unaccompanied migrants under the age of 18 for more than 72 hours before they are transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), where they are housed in shelters and reunited with parents or guardians.
In roughly 70 percent of the cases, the children reported being detained by CBP officials for more than 72 hours, according to the complaint.
“A unifying theme of the [children’s] complaints is the agency’s continued failure to incorporate the governing principle of U.S. policy regarding unaccompanied immigrant children into its every day practice; that these children are to be treated with dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability as children,” the complaint reads.
To protect the privacy of the children, the full 116 complaints were documented in affidavits that were not made public and were only submitted to DHS.
In one of the affidavits, a developmentally disabled 7-year-old boy suffering from malnourishment was apprehended in Texas and detained in a short-term holding facility for five days, according to the complaint.
The complaint details that after being transferred to ORR custody, the boy was hospitalized for 42 days, underwent two emergency surgeries and was diagnosed as suffering from a global development delay, autism disorder and severe malnutrition. The boy weighed just 25 pounds.
“Children are being abused on a massive and widespread scale. This is an urgent crisis that needs to be addressed immediately,” said James Lyall, staff attorney for the ACLU Border Litigation Project at the ACLU of Arizona, on a conference call discussing the complaint Wednesday morning.
He said that, although lawsuits have been filed, the complaint is an effort to “quickly and immediately bring to DHS attention the fact that CBP officials are abusing children on a massive scale, so that the agency can take appropriate action.”
“Litigation is a slow and cumbersome process,” Lyall added.
On May 20, 3,524 immigrants were being held in nine holding stations in the Border Patrol’s Texas Rio Grande Valley Sector, according to Joseph Anderson, director of litigation for the Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice.
Of those 3,524 people, 1,630 were juveniles, he noted.
In another affidavit in the complaint, a 12-year-old girl, who left El Salvador with her sister after she was targeted by a gang member, was held in Texas for nearly a week.
During their detention, the complaint alleges that the girl and her sister were denied adequate water and her only meal was bread with frozen bologna, which caused her to vomit. When they were transferred to an ORR shelter, the girl and her sister required medical treatment for dehydration.
“These children arrive to the U.S. after a perilous journey north, only to face further abuse at the hands of the government from which they seek protection. The U.S. must do more to fulfill a legal obligation and comply with U.S. and international law regarding unaccompanied children,” Erika Pinheiro, directing attorney for community education programs at Los Angeles-based Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, said on the conference call.
According to the complaint, other affidavits involve allegations of cold temperatures and detainees being provided only aluminum blankets to keep warm, if any blanket at all; the lights in the holding cells never being turned off; CBP officials failing to return detainees’ personal items; bathrooms situated in plain view of other detainees; and, among other things, several reported instances in which infants were not provided clean diapers, despite being detained for several days.
Ashley Huebner, managing attorney of the Immigrant Children’s Protection Project at the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, said the complaints’ allegations span all of the holding facilities in the Rio Grande Valley sector.
Also, although allegations of abuse in CBP short-term holding facilities have been ongoing throughout the last decade, most of the 116 children sampled in the formal complaint were abused within the last year, Huebner said.
“This is a representative sample,” said Pinheiro. “This is a very small percentage of a problem that is very large in scale."
The five organizations—the ACLU Border Litigation Project, the National Immigrant Justice Center, Americans for Immigrant Justice, Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project and the Arizona-based Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project—are calling on DHS to implement an emergency plan and procedures to prevent the alleged widespread abuse.
“These children’s stories are horrific, but they are only the latest indication that [the CBP] is out of control and in dire need of systemic reform,” Lyall said.
The complaint calls for DHS to ensure that children are not held in CBP custody for more than 24 hours and, at a minimum, ensure that the agency observes the 72-hour time limit for unaccompanied children to remain in custody.
It also calls on DHS to delegate screening responsibilities for unaccompanied immigrant children to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) or another appropriate federal agency with specific training on interview techniques for vulnerable populations; to implement a department-wide uniform complaint process so children can safely report abuse while in federal custody; and, among other things, to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for any official who mistreats or abuses children in CBP custody.
A representative from DHS could not be immediately reached for comment.
“The urgent need for these reforms is only compounded by the increasing arrivals of unaccompanied children at the border, which brings even more vulnerable children into contact with an agency that has demonstrated itself to be out of control and operating with a culture of abuse and impunity,” Lyall said.
Image: AP Photo/Chris Sherman