The government has removed 300 children from a migrant camp in Texas after complaints they were being kept in dirty, inhumane conditions.
“I have never heard of this level of inhumanity”.
That’s how lawyer Holly Cooper described the conditions inside a Texas border station, where the children were being held without access to hygiene products and essential care.
Products like soap, a toothbrush and blankets – which the United States Justice Department Lawyer Sarah Fabian argued may not be essential to ensuring ‘safe and sanitary’ conditions while in Border Patrol custody.
The Trump official was appealing a ruling that the Flores Agreement, which governs detention conditions for migrant children, had been violated at the facility.
Her argument, that basic hygiene products and sleep should not be mandatory under the agreement, drew criticism from the three-judge panel at the US Circuit Court of Appeals.
“If you don’t have a toothbrush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, it’s not safe and sanitary,” Judge A Wallace Tashima said to Ms Fabian.
“Wouldn’t everybody agree to that? Would you agree to that?”
US Vice President Mike Pence has since said the Trump administration believes migrant children should have access to soap, toothbrushes and other basic amenities.
‘Hungry, dirty and sick’
A legal team that recently interviewed 60 children at the Border Patrol station in Clint told The Associated Press children as young as 10 had been taking turns watching over a two-year-old boy because there was no one else to look after him.
Lawyers found the toddler smeared with mucus and wearing soiled clothing, having wet his pants without a diaper.
The children complained of being fed frozen meals and going up to 27 days without bathing or a clean change of clothes.
The lawyers reported more than a dozen children had also contracted the flu.
Lawyer Holly Cooper told The Associated Press she had never witnessed a situation as extreme.
“In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” Ms Cooper said.
“Seeing our country at this crucible moment where we have forsaken children and failed to see them as human is hopefully a wake up for this country to move toward change.”
Director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, Elora Mukherjee, was a member of the legal team which reported seeing teenage mothers in clothing stained with breast milk.
“Almost every child I spoke with had not showered or bathed since they crossed the border – some of them more than three weeks ago,” she said.
“There is a stench that emanates from some of the children because they haven’t had an opportunity to put on clean clothes and to take a shower.”
“The children are hungry, dirty and sick and being detained for very long periods of time.”
Another lawyer, Warren Binford from Willamette University, told The New Yorker they had received reports of a lice outbreak in one of the cells where twenty-five children were being held.
“They were given a lice shampoo, and the other children were given two combs and told to share those two combs, two lice combs, and brush their hair with the same combs,” he said.
“One of the combs was lost, and Border Patrol agents got so mad that they took away the children’s blankets and mats. They weren’t allowed to sleep on the beds, and they had to sleep on the floor…as punishment for losing the comb.”
300 children removed
US Department of Health and Human Services officials said the children have now been moved to a tent detention camp also in El Paso, where they will stay under Border Patrol custody until they can be placed with the department.
Lawyer Elora Mukherjee said almost all of the children had been separated from the adults they accompanied across the border.
“They don’t know where their loved ones are who they crossed the border with,” she said.
Under US law, unaccompanied migrant children must be transferred to Health and Human Services custody within 72 hours, but some children claimed to have spent weeks at the Clint Border Patrol facility.
Other children at risk
There are mounting concerns for children at other facilities, with another group of lawyers claiming to have witnessed similar conditions at a Central Processing Centre in McAllen, Texas.
Immigration lawyer Hope Frye reported meeting a 17-year-old mother who was wheelchair-bound after an emergency caesarean.
She said both the mother and premature baby were caked in dirt.
“She told me she believed if they did not get out, her baby would die,” Ms Frye said.
“There is no question in my mind that it was the extreme love of this 17-year-old mother that kept that baby alive.
“There is no soap and no water, or the water is inadequate or inaccessible unless you’re let out of the cages.”