The Border Concentration Camps

At any given time, for the past several weeks, the US Border Patrol has held more than 2,000 children in custody without their parents. Legally, border agents aren’t supposed to hold them for more than 3 days before being sent to the Department of Health and Human Services as they’re responsible for finding their closest US relative to house them while their immigration are adjudicated. However, in practice, Border Patrol’s holding the kids for days, sometimes weeks, in facilities without enough food or toothbrushes. And the children go for days without showering, overcrowded and undercared for.

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that asylum seekers detained in ICE-overseen private detention centers could buy toothpaste in the commissary for $11.02 per 4 oz tube of Sensodyne. Bob Barker doesn’t sell Sensodyne but does sell Colgate Cavity Protection by the case at $2.32 per 4 oz tube, and an off-brand sensitive toothpaste for even less. On the $1/day that detainees at Adelanto Detention Facility can earn for working menial jobs, the decision comes down to maintaining hygiene verses managing hunger. As Ramen is only 58 cents, over half a day’s labor at Adelanto. Meanwhile, employees of at least one company doing business with Border Patrol are speaking out against their CEO. In late June, 550 Wayfair employees staged walkouts outside company headquarters in San Francisco and Boston after reports of a $200,000 order including kids’ beds for a contractor known to work for detention centers emerged.

Low wages for undesirable work drive the US prison economy. Inmates serving long sentences at federal, state, and for-profit prisons hope to save enough money to call loved ones, send and receive email, hire lawyers and contribute to their defense, and send money home, let alone take basic care of themselves. As Racked reported in 2016: “But prison laborers are not commensurately paid. They’re not protected by OSHA. They’re forbidden from organizing into unions. They’re not eligible for workers’ comp. Inmates can be ordered to work for nothing. None of this is illegal.” Rules on what personal care items detention centers must give detainees are few and far between. In June, Justice Department lawyer Sarah Fabian argued in court that the law’s “safe and sanitary” stipulation doesn’t mandate that the government provide detained children soap and toothbrushes, a position baffling judged as well as anyone who believes in what constitutes as basic hygiene. According to the National Institute for Jail Operations (NIJO), touted as “your primary resource dedicated to serving those that operate jails, detention and correctional facilities,” soap, toilet paper, toothbrush and “cleaning agent,” comb, sanitary napkins or tampons, and lotion (if medically needed) “should be provided at no cost to inmates.” But the NIJO states these are only guidelines since laws and statutes are left to the states and jails’ jurisdiction.

Because detention centers don’t provide immigrants with their basic needs, many with the chance to work have no choice but to. As Reuters puts it, “Detainees are challenging what they say is an oppressive business model in which the companies deprive them of essentials to force them to work for sub-minimum wages, money that is soon recaptured in the firms’ own commissaries.” And yet, many detention centers are meant to be temporary facilities despite violating that promise by holding kids for months rather than days. As such, many don’t create opportunities to make income, however minimal. Though there’s at least one unofficial route for detainees. Although attorney Warren Binford told the New Yorker of a teen at Clint tasked by Border Patrol with maintaining order among the other kids as “an unofficial guard” in exchange for more food.

In late June, conditions at a detention facility in Clint, Texas became public. When investigators checked on US obligations under the Flores Agreement governing the care of immigrant children in US custody, they were so horrified that they turned whistleblower and told the Associated Press what they saw. Their stories disturbed the American public into national outrage that the acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Patrol resigned, despite officials’ denial. But like in most situations, the problem goes beyond one official or facility. The story gained even wider traction after New York US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s reference to the detention facilities as “concentration camps” and the ensuing debate over whether that term was appropriate (it is).

On Monday, June 24, 2019, officials confirmed that all 350 of the Clint facility’s children would be moved to other facilities by the next day. But about 250 have been placed with HHS and the rest were being sent to other Border Patrol facilities. At least that was supposed to be the case. However, on Tuesday morning, a Customs and Border Protection official told a New York Times reporter on a press call that about 100 children are currently being housed in Clint. Of course, that just illustrates the Trump administration’s hectic improvised response to the current border influx. But it’s a much, much bigger problem than what’s going on at a single facility. Since the problems investigators identified at Clint linger elsewhere as well.

One legal investigator from the Clint team visited the El Paso facility where many of the Clint children were sent to. Called “Border Patrol Station 1,” that investigator told Vox that conditions there were just as bad as in Clint and with the same problems like insufficient food, no toothbrushes, and aggressive guards. Thus, the problem isn’t the Clint facility, but the hastily-cobbled-together facility system Customs and Border Protection has thrown together during the last several months, as an unprecedented number of families and children coming into the US without papers has overwhelmed a system designed to deport single adults. Thus, it’s apparent that even an administration acting with the children’s best interests in mind at every turn would be scrambling right now. But policymakers are split on how much the current crisis is simply a resource problem Congress could help by sending more and how much is deliberate mistreatment or neglect from an administration or neglect from an administration that doesn’t deserve any money or trust. But come on, it’s most likely the latter given how Donald Trump and his swamp cronies peddle xenophobia and racism to his supporters.

According statistics sent to congressional staff in late June, between May 14 and June 13, 2019, US Border facilities housed 14,000 people a day, sometimes as many as 18,000. With most recent tally as of June 13, 16,000. Most of these were single adults, or parents with kids. But consistently, over that month, around 2,000 were “unaccompanied alien children,” or children held without adult relatives in separate facilities. In an early June press call, a CBP official said, referring to the total number of people in custody, “when we have 4,000 in custody, we consider that high. 6,000 is a crisis.”

Traditionally, an “unaccompanied alien child” refers to a kid who comes to the US without a parent or guardian. Increasingly as lawyers have reported and as investigators who’ve have interviewed detained children in late June, kids have been coming to the US with a non-parent relative and being separated. And because the law defines “unaccompanied” without a parent or legal guardian here, border agents can’t keep a child with a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or older sibling over 18. Though advocates have also raised concerns that border agents are separating relatives even when there’s evidence of legal guardianship. Under US law terms (especially after the 1997 Flores Settlement), immigration agents are obligated to get immigrant children out of immigration detention as quickly as possible, and in the least restrictive conditions possible while there. Save for emergencies, children aren’t supposed to be in Border Patrol custody for more than 3 days before being sent to HHS, which is responsible for finding and vetting a sponsor to house a child (usually a relative in the US). However, this isn’t happening. Attorneys, doctors, and even human rights observers have consistently reported are being detained by Border Patrol for days or longer before HHS picks them up. In the meantime, they’re being kept in facilities to hold adults for that time period, or in improvised “soft-sided” facilities that resemble (and are commonly referred to as) tents. Put the kids in blue Civil War uniforms and it’s a kiddie version of Andersonville (though that may be exaggerated).

Since late 2018, US immigration agents have been overwhelmed by the number of families coming across the border. Since the US immigration system was built to quickly arrest and deport single Mexican adults crossing the southern border to work, doesn’t have the capacity to deal with tens of thousands of families (mostly from Central America) who are often seeking asylum in the US. The length of time migrants are spending in Border Patrol custody (and the conditions there) have attracted some alarm before. In April, pictures of migrants held outside under an El Paso bridge, fenced in and sleeping on the ground, attracted outraged and led Border Patrol to stop holding migrants there. In May, the DHS Office of the Inspector General released an emergency report about dangerous adult overcrowding in 2 facilities: with 900 people being held in a place designed to hold 125.

The Clint reports broke when the Trump administration was already playing defense about its compliance with the Flores Settlement. While the administration’s working on a regulation that would supersede the agreement’s terms, which isn’t expected to be published in its final form until this fall and may well be held up in court. Anyway, in an earlier 9th Circuit Court of Appeals hearing about whether the administration needed to allow a court appointee monitor conditions for children in ICE and CBP custody, Department of Justice lawyer Sarah Fabian told judges that kids don’t necessarily need towels or toothbrushes to be in “safe and sanitary” conditions in a clip that looked especially bad when the Clint stories came out showing children being denied just that.

As The Atlantic explains, Fabian’s cringeworthy “safe and sanitary” argument came from the Trump administration’s awkward stance taken on this litigation: in order to challenge the court appointment of a special monitor, arguing there’s a difference between a promise to keep kids in “safe and sanitary” conditions (which the government has agreed to for decades) and a guarantee of particular items like toothbrushes. The court was unimpressed and the stories about Clint and other facilities coming out in the ensuing days certainly bolstered the case that the Trump administration has either willingly violated agreement to keep kids safe and healthy (which is more likely), or has been unable to keep it. Perhaps a mix of both.

What problems investigators identified at Clint such as too many people, not enough food, no toothbrushes, weren’t inherent to that facility. They were indications of an overloaded or neglected system. And it’s already clear these problems go beyond Clint. ABC News obtained testimony from a doctor visiting another Texas facility in Ursula and witnessed, “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.” She claimed the conditions were so bad they were, “tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease.” The children are now being sent from Clint to a facility that’s just as bad. According to Human Rights Watch, Clara Long who was the only member of the Clint investigative team who visited another center in El Paso known as “Border Patrol Station 1,” was mostly being used as a transit center where migrants were supposed stay for a few hours before being transferred. But she spoke to one family who’d been held in a cell there for 6 days and who voiced the same concerns that the kids in the Clint facility did. Long said the mother was ashamed for not having clean teeth. Since like Clint, the El Paso facility wasn’t providing enough toothbrushes that, “when she was talking to you she would put her hand up in front of her mouth and wouldn’t take it down.” The teenage son said he was afraid of the guards. Because when he’d get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, a guard had shoved him back into his cell and slammed the door on him. For 2 nights, the family had to sleep on the cold floor without blankets.

Most of the kids who were at the Clint facility the investigators visited in late June were set to be sent to HHS custody by the next day. But questions remain about what’s happening to the other 1,750 or so children in Border Patrol custody. That is, if levels remained static since mid-June and why the government could only place 250 children over 5 days with the agency that’s supposed to take responsibility for all kids within 72 hours. It’s not clear where the bureaucratic breakdown really is and whether it’s due to resource constraints or choices about how resources are used. The Trump administration has definitely made the choice to keep single adults in detention, even if it can release them. Border Patrol chief Carla Provost told Congress that, “if we lose (the ability to keep and deport) single adults, we lose the border.” This raises questions whether overcrowding in adult facilities could be avoided.

But it doesn’t address the unaccompanied children issue who simply can’t be released with an immigration court notice. While kids with parents in the US can be theoretically placed with them, the government is supposed to vet potential sponsors to make sure it’s not placing kids with traffickers. But that’s HHS’ job and the vetting doesn’t start until the kids are released from Border Patrol custody. Observers and policymakers agree that HHS simply doesn’t have the capacity to take migrant kids in. One Democratic Capitol Hill staffer compared it to a “jigsaw puzzle”: Not only are there only so many spaces available, but the facilities available might not match the child’s particular needs. For instance, you can’t put a baby in an HHS shelter for teens. But another Hill staffer that HHS claims it never refused a transfer for space reasons, muddying the waters.

Then there’s the question whether CBP is really doing all it can to care for kids in their custody. One Clint observer told the New Yorker stories of cruelty from some guards, indicating they were deliberately punishing children for the sin of coming to the US without papers. But she also claimed of many sympathetic guards and told the observers that the children shouldn’t be in their custody, implying they were doing the best they could and simply didn’t have the resources to do more. Advocates also said they’ve tried donating supplies to Border Patrol facilities but had their contributions rejected. As have other Texas citizens who’ve done the same. It’s not clear if Border Patrol decided this or if a 19th century state legal complication bans outside donations. Former CBP policy adviser Theresa Brown told the Texas Tribune, “It’s partially a constitutional thing about Congress controlling the purse and only being able to spend money that Congress gives, but it’s also about ethics.” Ethics? For God’s sake, refusing donations because of an outdated law doesn’t even hold water for me.

On Monday, July 2, 2019, a congressional Democrat delegation visited 2 overcrowded detention centers in El Paso and Clint, Texas. They were met by children and adults denied access to safe drinking water, kept in cold windowless warehouses, and were separated from their families. These were immigrants were hungry, scared, and hungry. One woman handed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a clear plastic pamphlet of Meridian shampoo that the congresswoman tweeted, “[S]he told me that this is all they give women to wash their entire body. Nothing else. Some women’s hair was falling out. Others had gone 15 days without taking a shower.” Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues’ accounts accompany new detailed reports on the inhumane conditions pervading inside Border Patrol facilities, and about many Border Patrol agents’ online behavior, given that they police the grounds. While the law requires that detention centers housing children to be safe and sanitary. However, lawyer and child advocate Warren Binford told the New Yorker “And there is nothing sanitary about the conditions they are in. And they are not safe, because they are getting sick.” With reporting from the New York Times on “the stench” permeating the Clint detention center, an odor belying stained clothes, diaperless toddlers, and babies caked in dirt, questions emerge on the lack of necessary health and hygiene toiletries. The Meridian shampoo packet sheds light on what little the detainees have access to and more critically, what they don’t.

According to its website, “Meridian Clear Shampoo Packet, .35 Oz” hails from Bob Barker “America’s Leading Detention Supplier.” Using the Federal Procurement Data System’s records, Vice reported that US Customs and Border Protection contacted Bob Barker in at least 10 instances between 2013 and 2017. Line items for “Personal Toiletry Articles” are listed at $3,177.93 in 2013 and $0 in 2017. Among Meridian’s ingredients: Methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone, 2 preservatives that nonprofit Environmental Working Group report are associated with allergic and irritation of the skin, eyes, and lungs. Lab studies on former indicate that the chemical may also be neurotoxic or, carry potential damage developing nervous systems. Bob Barker sells Meridian Clear Shampoo at $94.07 at 1000 packets, among the supplier’s cheaper offerings. Bob Barker also sells a lot of other products on its Personal Care & Hygiene, including body washes from Olay, Suave, and Dove along with bar soap from Dial, Zest, and Bob Barker-branded antibacterial. Oh, and they sell toothbrushes and toothpaste, 2 of the items that the New York Times reported aren’t distributed to the kids held at Clint.

Whether or not Border Patrol’s hands are tied in supplying detainees with basic care amenities, a secret Facebook group’s existence rife with hate speech indicates that some agents don’t have migrants’ health and survival in mind. On July 1, 2019, ProPublica released a report on a secret Border Patrol Facebook group around 9500 members strong, almost half of the country’s 20,000 Border Patrol agents. And as Ocasio-Cortez points out, where current and former agents make light of migrants’ deaths as well joked about inciting violence against Democratic congresspeople during their July 1 facilities tour, and questioned the authenticity of an Associated Press photo depicting a father and his 23-month old daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande after Border Patrol denied them immediate US entry in their asylum case. Post comments range from racist (“throw a […] burrito at these bitches”), to sexually violent (“Fuck the hoes,” not to mention a lewd photoshop of Ocasio-Cortez), and apathetic (“If he dies, he dies”). In response, US Border Patrol chief Carla Provost tweeted, “These posts are completely inappropriate & contrary to the honor & integrity I see—& expect—from our agents. Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”

However, it’s not just hygiene and nutritional needs that aren’t being met. The abhorrent living conditions seen in these reports show that some detained migrants find it nearly impossible to sleep. Overhead fluorescent lights remain on 24/7, intense cold temperatures blast the warehouse, kids and adults lie on concrete floors, sometimes under aluminum blankets, sometimes not. Without access to clean drinking water, Border Patrol agents have directed Clint women detainees to drink from the toilet. The lack of clean water to drink, wash hands, and bathe along with much needed medicine, combined with overcrowded quarters and poor nutrition have resulted in flu and lice outbreaks. Physician Dolly Lucio Sevier’s medical review of a McAllen facility in Texas, as ABC News reported, declared the conditions “tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease.” In May, a 16-year-old Guatemalan girl died at the McAllen facility from flu. And as of June 2019, 2 dozen detainees have died in ICE custody since Donald Trump took office.

In anecdotal reports, Border Patrol agents appears to have made certain health-related products available as needed. But as Warren Binford reports in one New Yorker story, the lice shampoo and 2 lice combs allotted to a group of 25 kids at Clint came at a great cost. “And then what happened was 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 on Wednesday night as punishment for losing the comb.” A 2007 Clinical Infectious Diseases article on jail and prison infections found that inmates pose a high risk of catching any number of diseases, including airborne viruses and treatment resistant staph infections. Jails and prisons weren’t designed “to minimize the transmission of disease or to efficiently deliver health care,” as California Correctional Health Care Services chief Joseph Bick wrote. “The probability of transmission of potentially pathogenic organisms is increased by crowding, delays in medical evaluation and treatment, rationed access to soap, water, and clean laundry” among other factors. Bick then adds, “the abrupt transfer of inmates from one location to another further complicates the diagnosis of infection, interruption of transmission, recognition of an outbreak, performance of a contact investigation, and eradication of disease.”

Congress is currently considering a package to give the Trump administration billions more dollars to deal with migrants coming into the US. To Democratic leadership, the solution to poor conditions in custody is to throw more money to improve them. They emphasize the funding’s bulk will go to HHS to increase capacity for migrant kids and that ICE and CBP funding will be strictly limited to humanitarian use. But some progressives, led in Congress by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, decry that giving any money to immigration enforcement agencies right now endorses the current state of affairs. The not-one-more-dime camp, in part, is taking a bright-line stance against child detention. However, in part, they’re demonstrating a lack of trust in the Trump administration to adhere to any law or condition. And they assume that any money for migrant kid transit will, in some way or another, encourage ICE to detain more families and arrest more immigrants in the United States.

On the other hand, the “smart money” camp firmly believes that without the funds to improve detention conditions, things will only get worse. That’s especially relevant in the case of kids “unaccompanied” who have to remain in custody until a sponsor is found. The past couple weeks have demonstrated that children are extremely vulnerable and that much of the American public wants their situation change. It’s not clear how.

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