Almost 300 migrant children removed from Texas facility described as 'appalling'

“I have never seen conditions as appalling as what we witnessed last week,” one attorney said.

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By Daniella Silva

Almost 300 migrant children have been removed from a border patrol facility in Texas after media reports of lawyers describing “appalling” and potentially dangerous conditions, Department of Homeland Security officials told NBC News.

Lawyers who recently visited two Texas facilities holding migrant children described seeing young children and teenagers not being able to shower for days or even weeks, inadequate food, flu outbreaks and prolonged periods of detention.

The children who were removed were being held at a border station in Clint, Texas. Some were wearing dirty clothes covered in mucus or even urine, said Elora Mukherjee, the director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School. Teenage mothers wore clothing stained with breast milk. None of the children had access to soap or toothpaste, she said.

“Almost every child I spoke with had not showered or bathed since they crossed the border — some of them more than three weeks ago,” she said. “There is a stench that emanates from some of the children because they haven’t had an opportunity to put on clean clothes and to take a shower.”

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The children have been taken to a tent detention camp also in El Paso, Texas, where they will remain under the custody of Border Patrol until they can be placed with the Department of Health and Human Services, the DHS officials said. The Associated Press first reported on the conditions at the facility.

Mukherjee was part of the team of lawyers who visited the facility last week. She said that although the border station has the capacity for slightly more than 100 people, when they arrived Monday morning there were about 350 children there. The group spoke to more than 60.

“I have never seen conditions as appalling as what we witnessed last week,” she said. “The children are hungry, dirty and sick and being detained for very long periods of time.”

“Children who are young themselves are being told by guards they must take care of even younger children,” Mukherjee said, adding that children as young as 7 and 8 were forced to care for 2-year-olds.

She said almost all the children had been separated from the adults they crossed the border with — siblings, aunts or grandparents, or even their parents.

“They don’t know where their loved ones are who they crossed the border with,” she said.

Many also had family members already in the United States waiting to take them in, she said.

Federal law requires unaccompanied or separated migrant children be transferred to HHS custody within 72 hours, but some children at the Clint facility had been in Border Patrol custody for weeks, she said.

Migrant children are increasingly finding themselves stuck on concrete benches or even outside at Border Patrol stations, with HHS close to exceeding its capacity, according to three government officials and documents reviewed by NBC News.

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Meanwhile, a different team of attorneys said they had also encountered children in similar conditions when they visited the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, this month.

“It’s the same conditions,” immigration attorney Hope Frye said.

Frye said she encountered a 17-year-old Guatemalan mother with a premature baby at the crowded facility. The mother was wheelchair-bound after an emergency C-section in Mexico. When Frye met her, she was “caked with dirt” and neither she nor her baby had showered since arriving, she said.

Frye said she took a tissue to clean the baby and wiped off “black dirt from her neck.”

Frye described the baby as looking weak and said the mother told her she had stopped thriving while at the facility.

Frye said she felt she had no choice but to come forward to tell the young mother’s story. The teen and her baby have since been released from Border Patrol custody.

“She told me she believed if they did not get out, her baby would die,” she said. “There is no question in my mind that it was the extreme love of this 17-year-old mother that kept that baby alive.”

Frye described filthy conditions, adding, “There is no soap and no water, or the water is inadequate or inaccessible unless you’re let out of the cages.”

Frye also said of the children they spoke to, “almost every kid had some sort of illness” or had been sick. She said the team sent a doctor back to the facility after the visit, and six children were ultimately sent to the hospital.

Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to request for comment about the conditions at the Clint and McAllen facilities.

A decades-old agreement known as the Flores Settlement sets the guidelines for treatment of migrant children as well as their detention and release, including that facilities be “safe and sanitary.”

Last week, a Department of Justice attorney appeared in court to argue an appeal of a 2017 ruling that the conditions of the settlement were being violated. In a clip that went viral, attorney Sarah Fabian argued that specific amenities such as soap, toothbrushes and even a half a night’s sleep should not be required under the terms of the original settlement. The argument drew criticism from the panel of judges at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“To me it’s more like it’s within everybody’s common understanding: If you don’t have a toothbrush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, it’s not safe and sanitary,” Judge A. Wallace Tashima said. "Wouldn’t everybody agree to that? Would you agree to that?”

Vice President Mike Pence said Sunday he does believe migrant children should have access to soap, toothbrushes and other basic amenities.

Daniella Silva

Daniella Silva is a reporter for NBC News, specializing in immigration and inclusion issues, as well as coverage of Latin America.

Julia Ainsley contributed.