Migrant children in two U.S. government-managed shelters in Texas have limited access to case managers, phone calls to family, outside of recreational and educational facilities, attorneys inspecting the facilities told CBS News.
However, attorneys said the two shelters, which are overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Dallas and Midland, Texas, are safe, hygienic, and provide a much better environment for migrant children thanBorder guards. The children at HHS facilities expressed relief at being released from border police custody, lawyers said, citing interviews with more than a dozen immigrant minors.
Unlike emergency shelters and care programs overseen by the HHS Refugee Resettlement Office, emergency and inflow shelters are not approved by government agencies to house children and are not subject to the same standards of care. Lawyers said they were concerned about whether there were written guidelines for caring for children in the places they went.
In response to the historic number of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the southern border, the Biden government is well on its way to opening at least 10 of these emergency facilities by repurposing convention centers, oil workers’ camps and military facilities. The main objective is to get minors out of Border Patrol facilities, which housed nearly 5,000 unaccompanied children as of Thursday morning.
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Carlos Holguín, one of the leading lawyers representing migrant children in federal litigation over the landmark Flores Accords, visited the makeshift shelter in Midland on Tuesday. The facility, once a camp for oil workers, housed around 500 Central American migrant boys in trailer-like structures with 10 children in each unit, Holguín said.
Holguín, the general counsel of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, said his main concern was that children would not have access to case management services that would facilitate their release for family members in the United States
“Case management is the most important issue because it minimizes the time children are there,” Holguín told CBS News. “We know the federal government is facing a difficult situation, but it needs to minimize the time children spend in this type of facility.”
Melissa Adamson, another attorney on the Flores case, attended the Midland facility with Holguín and another emergency room HHS set up at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, which housed approximately 2,000 teenagers. Adamson said the boys sleep on camp beds spread across a large area of the convention center.
Adamson said there was case management at the Dallas site, but it was limited.
“For every child I have spoken to, their first question, their first concern, has been how quickly they will be released for their family. The kids had no understanding of the sponsor clearance process, ”Adamson told CBS News, noting that all of the teenagers she spoke to hadn’t spoken to a case manager.
Adamson also expressed concern that the boys in Dallas do not have access to outside recreation. While staff at the convention center set up areas for the kids to play soccer and basketball, Adamson said some of the boys told her they couldn’t play as often as they’d like.
Holguín noted that while children in Midland can go outside, organized recreation is “minimal”. The boys with a migration background stated that they were allowed to play football for 40 minutes on certain days.
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The children also reported having no classroom instruction, reading materials or educational services other than being allowed to occasionally do handicrafts in a white tent, Holguín added. At the Dallas Convention Center, Adamson said the children received about 20 minutes of classroom-style instruction Monday through Friday.
Holguín said most of the boys in the former oil workers’ camp told him they could only call their family once in up to 15 days. He said the facility’s staff could set up a central phone room instead of occasionally providing cell phones to the children. Children in Dallas also reported limited access to phone calls with family, with some Adamson saying they were only allowed to make one call once a week.
“It was worrying for the children,” she added. “It was heartbreaking to see teenagers whose main concern was, ‘I think my family is worried about me. And I just want to let her know that I’m fine. ‘”
HHS did not deny the attorneys’ findings. “We appreciate the feedback from Flores attorneys and will continue to seek ways to improve services at all levels of our network of care providers in both the short and long term,” the department said in a statement to CBS News.
HHS stressed that the primary goal of emergency services is to get children out of custody by border police and called this a “life-saving mission”.
“These websites do what they’re supposed to do and provide vital necessities as children move through our system with the ultimate goal of association with a parent, guardian, or family member,” the department added. “Case management, recovery, education and other services are provided as much as possible in emergency situations.
Despite his concerns, Holguín said HHS had resolved groundwater problems reported at the Midland facility last month and recruited bilingual staff to fill the site. He said children told him they enjoyed the food that was delivered to Midland as well as the TVs in their units.
“In terms of the children’s reaction, they’re glad to be in Midland after spending some time with Donna,” Holguín told CBS News, referring to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) tent storage facility in Donna, Texas.
Adamson reiterated Holguin’s assessment, saying that COVID-19 precautions were being followed at the Dallas site and that the children appreciated the care there, telling her they could ask for extra blankets at night.
“The children I spoke to have expressed that they feel more secure. they felt better cared for; and that the staff at the Dallas Convention Center were much nicer to them than they were at Donna, ”said Adamson. “A lot of the kids had been with Donna for a very long time and were just very relieved not to be there.”
Earlier this week, Donna Holding’s capacity was 1,624% of its pandemic-era capacity. The pods were designed to accommodate 32 people in accordance with the COVID-19 abatement rules and housed more than 600 unaccompanied teenagers. Children sleeping there sleep on exercise mats and have reported spending days without sunlight.
Although official data has not yet been released, the number of unaccompanied children detained in U.S. custody on the southern border in March is expected to hit an all-time high for the month.
Holguín said the Central American boys he interviewed told him they had traveled north because of the pandemic, the devastation from successive hurricanes, and the suffocating poverty and violence that plagued their home countries for decades.
“The children described a perfect storm of push factors,” said Holguín.
Adamson said the interviews she conducted this week are a powerful reminder that the teenagers in these emergency facilities are children who have often had traumatic experiences and just want to be with their families.
“There has been so much media coverage that it is an ‘upswing’ or a ‘crisis’ and it’s just so dehumanizing for these kids,” said Adamson. “I was just talking to really scared children who were seeking shelter. They were happy to be there, but they were scared and they were scared because they didn’t know what was going to happen to them. “