A 13-year-old Honduran girl who spent two months at the government’s largest emergency shelter for migrant children said she was put on suicide watch and was eating only popsicles and juice because the food smelled so foul. At another site, a 17-year-old Salvadoran girl said she had to wear the same clothes and underwear for two weeks and spent most days in bed.
At a third facility in Texas, a 16-year-old Honduran boy said he had not met with a case manager for more than three weeks to see whether he could go live with his sister in New Orleans.
“I am desperate. I wouldn’t mind being here for 20 or 30 days if I knew that I was going to be released soon. But because the process hasn’t started and because I had no idea what’s happening or when the process will start, that makes me feel very, very anxious. I don’t know when this will end,” he said.
More than a dozen immigrant children described similar conditions and desperation to get out of large-scale emergency care facilities set up by the Biden administration at places like convention centers and military bases to address a record rise in the number of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The children were interviewed by immigrant advocates from March to June, and their accounts were filed late Monday with a federal court in Los Angeles that oversees a longstanding settlement governing custody conditions for children who cross the border alone.
Advocates have said for weeks that President Joe Biden’s administration is taking too long to release children to relatives in the United States and that conditions at some of the unlicensed emergency facilities are inadequate and distressing. The Obama and Trump administrations also faced challenges addressing the care of unaccompanied migrant children.
The Biden administration said significant improvements have been made, including redoubling efforts to swiftly reunify kids with their families or move them to licensed long-term care facilities. That has resulted in a drop in the number of children in emergency shelters, from a high of about 14,500 in April to fewer than 8,000 children now, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency in charge of their care.
At Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, the administration’s largest emergency shelter, the number of children has dropped from about 4,800 to 1,600. Activities like exercise classes and weekly meetings with case managers are now available, along with a library on-site that children can visit anytime, the department said.
In their accounts, the children — who are not named in the court filings — describe waiting for weeks or more than a month in facilities with little to do, minimal education and no knowledge of when they will be allowed to leave.
At Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army post, the Honduran girl on suicide watch said she could hardly sleep at night because the lights were always on and she found herself sleeping during the day. She said the food was horrible, including soggy salad and foul-smelling bread, so she resorted to eating only popsicles and juice.
She said that while on suicide watch, pens and pencils were taken from her and guards observed her every move — measures meant to protect her from harming herself.
She said she was told if she tried to escape, she would spend a longer time in detention. When she filed her account, she said she had been at the facility for nearly 60 days and didn’t know when she could go live in New Mexico with her uncle, who told her that he had completed the paperwork for her release.
“I have been here for a really long time. I really want to leave,” she said.
Record arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children have tested the Biden administration, which has picked up nearly 60,000 of them from February to May, many of them from Central America.
The government opened more than a dozen emergency intake sites this spring to respond quickly to overcrowding at Customs and Border Protection facilities, one of which was holding 4,000 people in a space intended for 250 and keeping many for weeks, far past a three-day limit.
At the emergency sites, children were expected to remain for a week or two until they could be reunited with relatives in the United States or sent to more stable locations, such as state-licensed long-term facilities or foster care.
More than 2,100 children were housed at emergency facilities for over 40 days and more than 2,600 for 21 to 40 days at the end of May, according to the government’s June report to the court. About a third of transitional foster care beds remained empty, as did nearly 600 beds at licensed shelters, the report said.
In their court filing this week, advocates who say children are languishing in the massive, tent-like structures questioned why the government is keeping so many in those unlicensed shelters rather than placing them in licensed facilities or with foster families.
After this many months, that “remains a complete mystery to us,” said Leecia Welch, senior director of legal advocacy and child welfare at the National Center for Youth Law and one of the lawyers for children in the federal case. “And it’s not for lack of asking the question. We’re simply not getting an answer.”
A hearing is scheduled for next week with the federal judge overseeing the case.
All emergency shelters are required to provide clean, comfortable sleeping spaces, toiletries, laundry and access to medical and mental health services, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Kids also can confidentially submit feedback in comment boxes.
The government contends it shut down any sites that did not meet those standards and are closing more as the need decreases.
But advocates fear more children could end up at the unlicensed emergency sites because Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered the closure of federally funded shelters that house migrant kids in that state. The Biden administration has threatened to take legal action if the Republican governor carries out the order. More than half of migrant children sheltered by the U.S. government in licensed facilities are in Texas.
At a facility in Houston that has since closed, the 17-year-old from El Salvador she couldn’t shower for eight days and was told to turn her underwear inside out because there was no laundry. She said children were limited on when they could use the bathroom and that she would cry at night.
“We spent most of the day in our beds at Houston because there was nothing else to do,” she said. “I felt very desperate.”
Taxin reported from Orange County, California, Gomez Licon from Miami and Watson from San Diego.