Lawyers for the National Center for Youth Law spoke this week with a dozen children in Donna, Texas, according to Leecia Welch, the center’s chief director of advocacy and child welfare.
The children were terrified, crying and worried about not being able to talk to family members, Welch said. Some said they had not seen sunlight for days. Others said that if they were lucky, they would go outside for 20 minutes every few days.
“Donna is fast becoming a humanitarian crisis,” Welch told CNN. “We understand that the administration inherited this disaster, but I cannot stress enough the urgency of the situation with the growing number of unaccompanied young children. We have spoken to many bewildered children who do not understand why they cannot talk to their children. parents, see your siblings in Donna, or take fresh air. “
In response to questions about the allegations, a CBP spokesman sent a statement from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stating that Border Patrol officials “are doing their best to care for unaccompanied children in their care.”
“Addressing the flow of unaccompanied children crossing our southwestern border is a top priority for this Administration and DHS,” the statement said. “It requires a coordinated and sustained response by the entire government.”
Earlier this week, a DHS official told CNN that Donna’s facilities were “significantly overcrowded,” describing conditions the administration officials observed when they visited last weekend.
Lawyer: Children are afraid, they try to comfort each other
Access to the team of lawyers was given to talk to the children because they were monitoring government compliance with the Flores agreement, a 1997 agreement that limits the time and conditions under which U.S. officials can detain children. immigrants.
Welch said lawyers were allowed to enter an area designated for lawyers, but were not allowed to tour areas where children are housed.
Welch communicated to the lawyers a manifesto of the installation, which was about 100 pages long. Every page lists many under-10s, he said.
At the facility, children are divided into pods about 50 years old, by age and sex, Welch said. This, he said, means that siblings of different sexes are separated, making the already stressful situation worse for children.
Most children have been to the facility for five to seven days, Welch said, and are scared. Because CBP officials are not allowed to hug or comfort children, children must be cared for and comforted each other, he said.
The lawyer said hygiene on the premises is also a concern. Some kids shower once a week and sometimes run out of soap, only shampoo is available, he said. A boy told Welch that he had not showered in six days.
The limited shelter space causes concern
CBP officials did not respond to CNN’s requests as to why lawyers were not allowed to tour the facility.
Earlier this week, the senior official in charge of the agency described to reporters the conditions of the facility, including three daily meals, 24-hour access to snacks and drinks, showers provided at least every 48 hours, and a recreation area.
“These are just some of the things we’re doing with the kids,” said Troy Miller, a senior official who served as CBP’s commissioner. “I tell you, a lot of us, maybe most of us are parents, parents – I have a 6-year-old myself – and these Border Patrol officers go beyond every day to take care of the children.”
Welch said what is needed immediately is rapid case management that will allow children to be placed in HHS care as soon as possible.
Officials have said they are working to increase the pace of processing.
“We continue to struggle with the number of individuals we have in custody, especially given the pandemic,” Miller said Wednesday. “We need to get them out faster.”
In recent days, the number of children in HHS custody has increased, indicating that the department is gradually absorbing the number of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone, making them leave the HHS facilities. Border Patrol and shelters where they can be cared for.
There are about 8,800 unaccompanied children in HHS custody, the department said Thursday, compared to last week, when the numbers hovered around 7,700.
CNN’s Geneva Sands and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.
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