Earlier this year, 29-year-old Mayra and her two young children fled a life of domestic violence and gang threats in Mexico. The trio crossed the U.S. border at Nogales, Arizona, where they told Border Patrol Agents that they were seeking asylum. The agents asked for their birth certificates and identification, brought them to a nearby government facility and put them into a small room with ten other women and children.
Over the next two days, Mayra and her kids were driven five hours east across the desert, locked into another cell with small rations of food and water, and then flown to a detention center in Karnes, Texas. As she later told an immigration lawyer, she wasn’t allowed to give her two-year-old daughter a bottle of formula, and her nine-year-old son began wetting the bed.
“My son is badly traumatized,” she said in one of over 200 accounts told to lawyers via translators in June and July. The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, among other plaintiffs, filed the statements on Monday in the U.S. District Court Central District of California, as part of a lawsuit Jenny Lisette Flores, et al. vs. Jefferson B. Sessions, Attorney General of the United States, et al. against the government holding minors in immigration custody. The last names of each detainee were redacted in court documents. “He saw someone bound with chains and asked me whether I would be chained in the same way…He wonders when we will get to the United States. I do not tell him that we are already here. He wouldn’t believe that the United States would treat us this way.”
Speaking from the San Ysidro Facility in California, 14-year-old Brandon from Guatemala said his mother and two brothers arrived at the border on the July 4th. Border Patrol agents separated his mom and youngest brother to one cell, and his older brother and himself to another. There they were given “a thin mattress and one blanket” and put into a room with seven other males, all under the age of 18. They received cheeseburgers, sandwiches and apple juice. But he couldn’t shower or brush his teeth and he complained of the cold space, where the lights are on all day and night. “There are no windows to the outside, so I don’t know what time it is,” he said.
The case stems from a 1985 incident involving Jenny Lisette Flores, a 15-year-old Salvadorian girl who migrated from Mexico to California only to spend two months at a detention center among adults. At that time, the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law became one of four plaintiffs to help Flores sue the U.S. government. A judge quickly ordered Lisette’s release and the class-action lawsuit has found its way into courtrooms ever since. Back in 1997, a related settlement set “nationwide policy for the detention, release, and treatment of minors in the custody of the [U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service],” according to documents from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District, favoring the release of minors in about 20 days and requiring those detained to be in licensed, secure facilities.
In May, President Trump established his “zero tolerance policy” that essentially allows U.S. authorities to criminally prosecute anyone crossing the border – but since children could not be criminally charged, while their parents were sent to prisons, they were sent to separate facilities. He blamed the Democrats for his administration separating families and detaining children. A recent plan delivered by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw called for the reunification of kids with their parents. The administration missed the first deadline, which stated all children under five must be reunited within 14 days. They were also ordered to reunite all children with their families within 30 days, a deadline they are also expected to miss.
In other recent court filings, the attorneys argued that “recent events have shown that Defendants have mounted a full-scale assault on the 1997 Flores settlement.” The plaintiffs plan to present their case on July 27th in federal court, before U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, and request the appointment of a “qualified and impartial Special Monitor” to oversee the treatment of migrants, who they say are being housed in cold, filthy facilities lacking quality medical care, food and water. “Defendant’s unsafe treatment of children continues unabated,” one memo reads. “Rather than signaling a willingness to end their breach of the Agreement, Defendants have doubled down on their breach smiling for no other reason than that’s what the President wants.”
According to Reuters, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Juvenile Coordinator Henry Moark Jr. has said the department works “to ensure all minors in CBP custody are treated with dignity, respect, and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors.” Moark added that the families he talked with “received meals and snacks; had access to drinking water, functioning toilets, and functioning sinks; and were held in rooms that were maintained at an appropriate temperature.”
Still, the harrowing accounts from migrant families show that adults and their children are experiencing the detention facilities as “ice boxes” and “dog kennels.”
Blanca, a 25-year-old Guatemalan mother with a 4-year-old daughter, said that she was searched by a male agent two months ago when she crossed the border. The experience was “very uncomfortable” for her, especially since she had “suffered both physical and sexual abuse by men in the past.” She and her daughter slept on a cold floor among over 30 women and then “taken to the dog house,” where she had a mattress, but experienced “headaches, chills, bodyaches, and a fever.” No doctors. No showering for five days. No legal notices. They were taken to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Dilley, Texas. “It is not as bad place but my depression is getting bad because it feels like a prison,” she said. Her daughter asks when they can leave, “but I do not have an answer for her.”
A 30-year old mother named Daise said she brought her 16-year-old to the U.S. after she was held at gunpoint three times in Honduras. Border Patrol agents took them to a facility in McAllen, Texas, where they “were given food, but the food was frozen and not fit for consumption.” They had “a mylar blanket but no mattress pad.” At another center, which she only called the “Dog House” the female guards strip searched her daughter and “called her names and made fun of her and the other children.”
In a phone interview on Thursday morning, Andrew Cain, the directing attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, a co-counsel on the lawsuit, told Rolling Stone that last week he traveled down to the Ajo Customs and Border Patrol Station in Why, Arizona, where his staff interviewed detained minors. One of Cain’s hopes is for Judge Gee to grant an independent monitor to be “an objective, neutral set of eyes to enter into these facilities and provide a true perspective about what’s going on.”
“There is a lot of work to be done by the Border Patrol, ICE, or Refugee Resettlement to provide kids detained with adequate treatment, nutrition, access to lawyers, their understanding of their rights, and quality of temperature,” he says. “The fact is that some of these kids are detained in what amounts to cages.”