Lawyers: Children detained at border facing COVID exposure
HOUSTON (AP) — Border Patrol agents are detaining about 65 immigrant children at a station in South Texas in conditions that don't control the spread of the coronavirus, with limited social distancing and a lack of access to soap or hand sanitizer, immigration lawyers said Friday.
A lawyer who visited the station at Weslaco, Texas, on Wednesday spoke to teenagers who had been detained there for at least three days, said Carlos Holguin, co-founder of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law.
One of the teens, a 15-year-old boy, said in an affidavit that he was allowed to shower for five minutes a day and waits to shower in a line with no room for social distancing, Holguin said. The boy said he was given a single face mask that he has to wear every day.
A 13-year-old said in another affidavit that he is using the cloth mask he wore when he entered the U.S., Holguin said. Both teens said they don't have hand sanitizer or soap for hand washing.
“If they don’t arrive with COVID, the conditions in these facilities are such that when they exit, they are likely to have been exposed to COVID,” he said.
The youngest child at the station is 3 years old, a girl who is accompanied by her mother, Holguin said. There are also children who are 8 and 9.
The report is the latest allegation that immigrant children are being mistreated by the Trump administration, which separated thousands of families in 2017 and 2018, holding many of them in a converted warehouse in South Texas. Another Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, was used last year to hold more than 250 children and teens without food, water, and sanitation, and reports emerged of children having to care for each other.
Border Patrol stations are not designed to hold children, unlike facilities operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Weslaco station is where 16-year-old Carlos Hernandez Vasquez died of the flu after being left unattended in a cell for hours. Hernandez is one of six children since 2018 to have died soon after being apprehended by border agents.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that it had designated Weslaco as the regional location to hold children who cross the border with or without their parents.
“Specific services and amenities are required for these vulnerable populations and the specifically designated facility contains the supplies and personnel to meet that need,” the agency said. "The United States Border Patrol adheres to CDC guidelines regarding social distancing and personal hygiene.”
The agency did not answer questions about whether children were denied hand sanitizer, soap, or new masks.
Dr. Amy Cohen, executive director of the advocacy group Every Last One, criticized what she described as the “same dangerous and deplorable conditions ... that we have seen for years.”
“In the midst of a deadly viral pandemic, that children should be treated like this raises the threat that we will see more deaths of children," Cohen said.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has expelled thousands of immigrant children without giving them a chance to seek protection under asylum and other immigration laws, citing what it said was a public health risk. It argued expulsions were necessary to control the spread of COVID-19. The Associated Press has since reported that Vice President Mike Pence ordered the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use its emergency powers after some at the CDC resisted.
Earlier this year, the administration was detaining children and families in hotels for days or weeks at a time before expelling them. A federal judge in September barred the use of hotels as long-term detention sites.
After that order, border authorities started referring more children to Health and Human Services facilities while still seeking to carry out expulsions. Another federal judge this week barred the administration from expelling children unaccompanied by a parent, though the judge’s ruling did not apply to children who cross the U.S.-Mexico border with their parents.
Holguin is part of a team of lawyers that monitors the treatment of immigrant children in custody under a court settlement known as the Flores agreement. He said CBP had refused to tell his team how long all the children had been detained at the station and whether any had been there more than three days, the limit set by the Flores agreement.
“Our concern is that because they’re not permitted to use hotels like they were previously, that instead they’re just going to hold children in Border Patrol stations like Weslaco," he said.