Human Rights Watch researcher: child migrant jail conditions are “urgent”


Describe what you saw at Clint, where now
a hundred kids are being sent back in, after the government said they took out 300. Thank you. Thank you for having me, Amy. You know, I was there as part of a team of
lawyers and doctors who volunteered to monitor these facilities on behalf of the Flores settlement,
which is a decades-old legal settlement between the government and lawyers for children who
are detained by immigration enforcement. And as part of that settlement, we don’t
actually have access to the locations, such as the facility where—you know, to the whole
facility where children are being detained. What we can do is speak to them. Because they’re class members, basically
they are clients. And so, we were sort of placed in this anodyne
interview room and given a roster of children who were in the facility. And when we got there on Monday, we got this
roster, and it showed that there were over 350 children in the facility, from zero to
17 years old. And so we said, OK, we’re just going to
start calling the youngest kids. We’re going to start calling the kids who—you
know, the young parents. There were some young mothers there with infants. And we’re going to start—we’re going
to try to talk to the kids who it appears, based on this list, may have been here for
the longest. And when the kids came into the interview
rooms where we were sitting, one of the things we noticed was that we—you know, we were
calling kids who were listed as being 2 or 3 years old, and they were indeed alone in
the facility. They would come into the interview room, usually
together with a somewhat older kid, and the agent would say, “Oh, this kid is taking
care of that other kid.” And indeed, what the kid said was, you know,
if you talk to the older kid—often these toddlers were preverbal—”Oh, yeah, I’ve
been taking care of this toddler, you know, because there’s no one else to do it, and
they’re in my cell with me. So, you know, I’ve been changing their diapers,
giving them food, making sure they’re OK.” And that was sort of how those interviews
went. We ended up understanding from the kids that
many had been there for weeks. And, you know, the kid who had been there
the longest, who we spoke with, had been there for 26 days. And that’s staying in these conditions that
are really inappropriate for anyone for that amount of time, much less for a child. They hadn’t been able to change their clothes,
for the most part. If they had gotten a shower or bath, it was
on the level of, say, once a week. Same thing with toothbrushes. In fact, they would say, you know, “We were
allowed to brush our teeth, say, once a week, but then they told us we had to throw away
the toothbrushes, because you can’t have them in the cell because they’re contraband.” So they wouldn’t let them sort of take that
kind of item back into these jail cells. A lot of them said, you know, there are some
beds, there are some mattresses, but people do—you know, kids do also have to sleep
on the floor, because there are just not enough. That’s the facility that after we decided
that it was so urgent, we had to speak out. Oh, let me say, just quickly, you know, the
other thing that really concerned us, from the perspective of urgency, was that many
of the kids we called were visibly sick, runny noses. Some of the younger kids had mucus-stained
clothing. And then, many of the kids we had asked to
speak with, they said, “No, you can’t speak with that child because they’re in
quarantine.” We said, “We’ll go to the quarantine room. No problem. We’ll send some team members to the quarantine
room and have them immediately leave the facility, if you’re worried about us spreading infectious
diseases.” They said no. They never gave us access to these quarantine
rooms. And we called a significant number of kids,
almost, I believe, 10 kids, at least, who they said we couldn’t see because they were
in quarantine. At one point, I had, you know, this really
quiet second-grader who came into the interview room, and she sort of sat—you know, she
came in, and she sat on this big office chair. And she was like grabbing the sides of the
chair, and she was like sort of bracing herself. And I asked her one question. You know, I said, “Hello.” You know, I invited her to speak, and asked
if she wanted to speak. And she said, “OK.” And I said, you know, “Who did you cross
the border with?” And she said, “My aunt.” And then she just started crying so hard that
she couldn’t produce words. And, you know, I’m trying to calm her down,
rubbing her back and looking and seeing that she had a bracelet on with the words, in U.S.
permanent—sorry, in permanent marker, the words “U.S. parent” and a phone number. You know, someone had taken the time to write
that down, I guess, when they separated her from her adult relative, her custodian, with
whom she crossed the border. So, you know, at that point—there’s this
sense that you’re not allowed to use your phone in the facilities, but at that point
I and other members of our team just decided, “You know, screw that. We’re going to start making phone calls.” So, picked up my phone and dialed the number
and connected with her father. And he had no idea where she was being held. And, you know, they were able to speak. And after that, she was able to sort of ask
for more phone calls, because she realized that phone calls might be a possibility. That was some of the— How many of these kids had bracelets that
had their parents’ phone numbers written directly on them? She was the only one who I saw with a bracelet
with the parents’ phone number. But there were so many kids who do have parents
in the United States. I mean, another group of brothers who I spoke
with had traveled with an older sibling to the U.S., a 19-year-old sister. And the sister was the one who had the parents’
contact information. But they separated these kids from their adult
sister so suddenly at the border that they were left with none of their parents’ contact
information. And they were distraught. They felt like they would never—maybe never
connect with their parents again. And so, for them, you know, I was able to
hook up my phone on a hotspot and went on Facebook and sent a bunch of messages to the
people—you know, the profiles they identified as their father and their aunt. And someone got back to me, and we were able
to get the number and give their dad a call and send them, you know, back to their cells— And, Clara— —at least with a paper that had the number. And where are these—when the children leave
that facility, where do they get sent? So, the children who are leaving that facility
are going to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is under a different agency, the Health
and Human Services agency. And they’re going into what is now an extremely
bloated set of detention centers and shelters. That’s the custody that’s being considered,
for example, at Fort Sill. These sort of large detention centers are
the new norm, really, under the Trump administration, like the one in Homestead, Florida, being
run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. I’ve been doing visits in those facilities,
as well. And, you know, the real problems that we’re
seeing there have to do with extremely extended lengths of stay, especially under the Trump
administration. They’ve really slowed down the process to
reunify children with family members in the United States. And a lot of that has to do with the administration’s
desire and policy to use the information of people who come forward to take care of children
and get them out of these detention centers, for immigration enforcement purposes, so to
arrest, detain and deport the people who come forward to take care of them.

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