Over the past week, reports have emerged of hundreds of migrant children being held in unbelievably harsh conditions at government facilities on and near the southern U.S. border. The stories have shocked many Americans, and led to deep division on the part of House Democrats over how to fund an emergency humanitarian-aid package.
To understand more about this crisis, I called Elora Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia Law School and the director of the school’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. She has been working on issues related to the Flores settlement, an agreement that outlines how the U.S. government must care for unaccompanied migrant children, since 2007. Mukherjee has represented and interviewed multiple children and families. She was at the Clint holding facility in Texas last week, along with a group of lawyers and doctors, to interview the children held there. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lizzie O’Leary: Tell me a little about your involvement and what you saw.
Elora Mukherjee: I have been representing and interviewing immigrant children and their families in detention. Most recently, I was in Brownsville, Texas, interviewing children detained at Casa Padre last July. In March of this year, I was in Homestead, Florida, interviewing children detained there. Both of those facilities were very controversial and have received a lot of coverage. Last week I was in Clint, and the conditions we found were appalling. In 12 years representing immigrant children in detention, I have never seen such degradation and inhumanity. Children were dirty, they were scared, and they were hungry.
An overwhelming number of children who I interviewed had not had an opportunity for a stable shower or bath since crossing the border [days or weeks earlier]. They were wearing the same clothing that they had crossed the border in. Their clothing was covered in bodily fluids, including urine and breast milk for the teenage moms who are breastfeeding.
Nearly every child I spoke with said that they were hungry because they’re being given insufficient food. The food at Clint is rationed on trays. Everyone gets an identical tray regardless of if you’re a 1-year-old, or you’re a 17-year-old, or a breastfeeding teenage mother who has higher caloric needs. The same food is served every single day, and none of the children receive any fruit and vegetables or any milk.
O’Leary: The AP is reporting that the kids in Clint, or at least the majority of them, may have been moved since your visit. Do you have any sense of where they went? Customs and Border Protection (CBP) hasn’t answered my question. [Editor’s note: CBP spokespeople gave varying answers to The Atlantic as to where the children were. Initially, a spokesman said over the phone that they had been moved. Another responded to a second question over email that there were “no updates at this point.” CBP did not respond to a subsequent email asking about reporting that the children had been moved back to Clint.]
Mukherjee: CBP hasn’t answered our questions either. We have learned that same information through the AP’s coverage. We are trying to figure out where CBP is moving the children.
All the children I spoke with had been detained in other CBP facilities prior to living in Clint. So Clint was their second or third stop in CBP custody. And we need to know where these children are going.
O’Leary: How was Clint compared with Homestead or some of the other facilities you’ve visited? Was it noticeably worse?
Mukherjee: Yes, it was noticeably worse. When I interview children in detention, I try to sit near them so that we can have a better conversation about very traumatic, sensitive, difficult topics. Usually that leaves the children crying. At Clint, I found that hard to do because there was a stench emanating from some of the children. It was filthy and disgusting and there was, as of last week, a flu epidemic at Clint and a lice infestation. And children do not have the ability to wash their hands with soap at Clint.
We repeatedly begged for access to the medical-quarantine area. We wanted to see the children who were the most vulnerable there. All of our efforts to seek access to the quarantine were denied. We were only permitted to make phone calls to the children there and there was a guard hovering, listening to what the children were saying on the other end of the line when they spoke to us by phone. Obviously it is nearly impossible to conduct an interview with a very young child who is very sick by phone.
The previous week my colleagues from the Flores team were in Ursula [a detention center in McAllen, Texas] interviewing children, and the lawyers and doctor on that team identified multiple infants who were extremely sick and who needed to be hospitalized. Those infants were admitted to the hospital, and some to the intensive-care unit.
It’s worth noting that over the last year, seven children have died in federal immigration custody. When you look at the data for nearly the previous decade, there was not a single death. There was not a single reported death of a child in federal immigration custody.
O’Leary: You’ve been doing this work for a while, and I know that you’ve been asked this question before, but how do these conditions compare to what you saw under previous administrations?
Mukherjee: I have never seen such degrading treatment of children.
I’m a mother myself. I have children who are 3, 6, and 9. I met with children my own kids’ age at the detention center who had no sibling or parent to take care of them. The guards are bringing in children who are 2 years old, 3 years old, and asking children who are just slightly older to take care of them. Actually, they’re not asking; they’re ordering that 7-, 8-, or 9-year-old children take care of 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds.
Obviously, these young children do not know how to take care of toddlers. When an 8-year-old was being interviewed about a 2-year-old whom she was unrelated to and had very little information about, one of the questions that my colleague Warren Binford asked is, “Does this toddler need a diaper?” The 8-year-old responded, “No.” Almost immediately the 2-year-old wet their pants.
O’Leary: You describe talking to kids the same age as your children. What is their comprehension of where they are and what’s happening to them?
Mukherjee: The children are terrified. Many of the children I spoke with have not been permitted to make a single phone call to any of their family members or loved ones since crossing the border. Many of them are being held incommunicado. Everyone who we interviewed, and I anticipate nearly every child who was detained at Clint, has family members in the United States who are desperate to be reunited with their beloved children. Parents who are desperate to get their children back and parents who have no idea how to get their children out of there and the children have no comprehension, no understanding of how they might be able to get out. They don’t understand the process to get out.
O’Leary: What should the process be? Shouldn’t they be under the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at this point?
Mukherjee: Yes. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act requires that children be transferred out of CBP custody within 72 hours. The children are then transferred to ORR custody.
During this entire time, while children are in federal immigration custody, the 1997 Flores settlement agreement applies. It requires the prompt release of all children as quickly as possible. The agreement sets out in very explicit, clear detail that these children need to be released expeditiously, and that is not happening. This should not happen in the United States of America.
O’Leary: Where do you see this going from here? Obviously there was tremendous outcry a year ago, after a lot of the initial reports of family separation, and yet here we are again.
Mukherjee: Yes, here we are again. Family separation—parent-child unit separations—were supposed to have stopped between last June and this May. The government just reported in the class-action lawsuit challenging the family separation policy that more than 700 families have been torn apart. In Clint last week, every child who we interviewed had crossed the border with an adult family member, whether it was a parent or an older sibling or an aunt or a grandmother. Every one of those family units was torn apart by the government.
In terms of what should happen next, we’re calling for immediate congressional hearings on the appalling conditions at the border. We ask everyone, regardless of your political background, to reach out to Congress … and demand that there be an investigation about the appalling conditions in which children and adults are detained in CBP and ORR custody. This is not how we should be treating people—and especially children—in America.