HOUSTON – Border guards arrest about 65 immigrant children at a station in South Texas in conditions that do not control the spread of the coronavirus, with limited social distancing and lack of access to soap or hand sanitizer, immigration lawyers said Friday.
A lawyer who visited the Weslaco, Texas station 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 five minutes a day and was waiting to shower in a queue where there was no room for social distancing, Holguin said. The boy said he was given a single face mask to wear every day.
A 13-year-old said in another affidavit that he was using the cloth mask he wore when he entered the United States, Holguin said. Both teenagers said they didn’t have hand sanitizer or soap to wash their hands with.
“If they don’t arrive with COVID, the conditions at these facilities are such that they were likely to have been exposed to COVID when they left,” he said.
The youngest child on the ward is 3 years old, a girl who is accompanied by her mother, Holguin said. There are also children who are 8 and 9 years old.
The report is the latest claim that immigrant children are ill-treated by the Trump administration, which separated thousands of families in 2017 and 2018, and maintained many of them in a converted warehouse in South Texas. Another Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, was used last year to take in more than 250 children and adolescents with no food, water or sanitation. There have been reports of children having to look after each other.
Unlike US Department of Health facilities, border patrol stations are not designed to accommodate children. In the Weslaco ward, 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 who died shortly after being arrested by border officials.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that Weslaco is intended as a regional location for children crossing the border with or without parents.
“These vulnerable populations require specific services and amenities and the dedicated facility contains the supplies and staff to meet those needs,” the agency said. “The United States Border Patrol adheres to CDC guidelines for social distancing and personal hygiene.”
The agency didn’t answer questions about whether children were being denied hand sanitizer, soap, or new masks.
Dr. Amy Cohen, executive director of Every Last One advocacy group, criticized what she described as “the same dangerous and unfortunate conditions … we have seen in years”.
“In the midst of a deadly virus pandemic, children are at risk of more deaths if children are treated like this,” Cohen said.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration expelled thousands of immigrant children without giving them the opportunity to seek protection under asylum and other immigration laws, citing a public health risk in the process. It has been argued that expulsions are 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 deploy their emergency forces after some resisted the CDC.
Earlier this year, the administration detained children and families in hotels for days or weeks before being deported. A federal judge banned the use of hotels as long-term detention centers in September.
Following this order, border authorities began referring more children to health and social services while they continued to attempt evictions. Another federal judge this week prevented the administration from excluding unaccompanied children, even though the judge’s decision did not apply to children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with their parents.
Holguin is part of a team of lawyers overseeing the treatment of immigrant children under a judicial settlement known as the Flores Agreement. He said CBP refused to tell his team how long all the children had been held at the ward and whether they had been there for more than three days, the limit set in the Flores Agreement.
“Our concern is that because they are no longer allowed to use hotels as they used to be, they will instead only keep children in border patrol stations like Weslaco,” he said.