The Biden administration has been sued over “shockingly deplorable conditions” at a number of so-called “emergency” camps holding unaccompanied minors, with children’s welfare advocates alleging the administration has been violating a decades-old court settlement dictating the treatment of children who are in U.S. custody.
One of the two Texas camps at the center of the lawsuit is Fort Bliss, where attorneys in court documents describe “alarming and harmful conditions created by lax oversight of inexperienced contractor and volunteer staff.” At the second site, Pecos, advocates said in court documents that “the reports we have received from both attorneys and clients on the conditions at Pecos are the worst we’ve ever observed.”
In the case of Pecos, “our legal team has witnessed disturbing conditions that put the health and welfare of these children in harm’s way including food-related abdominal pain from undercooked and spoiled food, and children being kept in cage-like rooms for most of the day,” RAICES said. Court documents detail medical neglect at the camp, including “clients who have not received proper medical attention after breaking bones,” advocates said.
“Defendants have entrusted the care of vulnerable children to staff at [emergency intake sites] who lack experience caring for children and in some cases cannot even communicate with the children they are supervising,” court documents continue. This mirrors a whistleblower report last month that said the federal contractor paid to operate Fort Bliss is a fire and water damage repair company with zero experience in child welfare. Per a second whistleblower report, Fort Bliss contractors have cumulatively been paid close to $1 billion in federal agreements.
“Unqualified EIS staff have proven unable to protect children from bullying or physical assault,” court documents continued. “Disturbingly, [Office of Refugee Resettlement] reportedly plans to house hundreds of tender age children as young as 6 years old at the Pecos EIS despite the harsh conditions at that remote facility.”
The New York Times reports that the Biden administration currently has over 17,000 children in U.S. custody. The vast majority are held at licensed, Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)-contracted facilities. More than 2,500 of these children are at the unlicensed Pecos and Fort Bliss camps. While the Biden administration said it had to open these unlicensed camps on an emergency basis because capacity limits at licensed facilities were resulting in kids being forced to stay longer in harmful Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities, they continue to be anything but temporary, advocates say.
“ORR guidance makes clear that ‘EIS are short-term, stop-gap facilities, and not designed for the long-term care of children,’” court documents continued. “Yet ORR has now been operating EISs for nearly five months—with no end in sight—and thousands of children have been subjected to prolonged detention in these unregulated facilities.” Documents say that children have been languishing “for weeks or months on end when they can and should be in a licensed placement.”
Advocates say the administration’s “current practices related to EIS facilities violate” Flores settlement “requirements that children be placed in licensed facilities ‘as expeditiously as possible,’ that Defendants ‘make and record the prompt and continuous efforts’ to release class members ‘without unnecessary delay,’ and that Defendants ‘place each detained minor in the least
restrictive setting appropriate to the minor’s age and special needs … in facilities that are safe and sanitary and that are consistent with [Defendants’] concern for the particular vulnerability of minors.’”
Seventeen children submitted testimonies in June describing “crowded living conditions, spoiled food, lack of clean clothes and struggles with depression” at sites like Fort Bliss. One 17-year-old girl said in documents from June that she was held in CBP custody for 11 days (nearly four times the legal limit) before being sent to Fort Bliss. While her uncle had submitted his fingerprints as part of the sponsoring process, there was no indication as of June when she’d be released. As of the document date, she’d been at Fort Bliss for two months.
Advocates have long criticized these so-called emergency facilities. Under public pressure, the administration reversed a decision to reopen one such camp in Homestead, Florida. “I’ve given the Biden administration credit where credit is due on getting kids out of Border Patrol custody and reducing the number of kids in shelters, but the fact that these conditions have persisted for months now in the ‘emergency influx shelters’ is not acceptable,” American Immigration Council policy counsel Aaron Reichlin-Melnick tweeted in response to one report.