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Judge Details the Deplorable Conditions Central American Children Face in Detention

A week ago, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee found that the detention of thousands of Central American refugee children and their mothers violated the terms of a court enforce agreement governing the conditions of detained minors. While Judge Gee’s decision touched on a number of violations by the Department of Homeland Security, I want to focus on what she said about the conditions of detention during the first days after the child is taken into custody by the Border Patrol.

In here decision, Judge Gee described the background to the case. “Beginning in the summer of 2014, in response to a ‘surge’ of Central Americans arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, ICE adopted a blanket policy to detain all female-headed families, including children, in secure, unlicensed facilities for the duration of the proceedings that determine whether they are entitled to remain in the United States.”

A large section of Judge Gee’s decision concerns the conditions in which newly detained Central American refugee children and their mothers are held. Under the terms of an agreement covering the detention of children, the following standards are supposed to apply:

“Following arrest, the [Federal Agency] shall hold minors in facilities that are safe and sanitary and that are consistent with the INS’s concern for the particular vulnerability of minors. Facilities will provide access to toilets and sinks, drinking water and food as appropriate, medical assistance if the minor is in need of emergency services, adequate temperature control and ventilation; . . . .”

After they are arrested, the children are taken to Border Patrol stations where they are often held for several days. These holding areas were the focus of many complaints. The detainees submitted evidence to the court that the facilities were often unheated in the winter. Judge Gee writes in her decision that detainee affidavits referred to the facilities as “hieleras or “iceboxes” and “described being given coverings of aluminum foil that were inadequate to keep them warm.” The judge quoted one detainee who said that “The very big room was very cold. It was like a ‘hielera’ (ice box). . . . There were no blankets or mattresses, and they only gave us one aluminum blanket each to keep ourselves warm. It was not enough, and my daughter and I were both very cold.” Another woman complained that when she was being held, “I was with 8 moms, with their small babies. We were given a small mattress and an aluminum blanket. . . . It was also super cold in that place . . . .”

The detention areas were small, crowded rooms in which 100 or more unrelated adults and children were held. In these rooms, the crowding “forced children to sleep standing up or not at all.” The detention areas were unsanitary, with toilet paper and other debris scattered around because no waste baskets or bags were available.

The children also had trouble getting basics like food. When they asked for something to eat, they received the harshest responses. Judge Gee quoted one detainee who recalled that “The immigration officials, when the people asked for something to drink or to eat they answered that it wasn’t their country, it wasn’t their house. So they didn’t bring them anything.”

Judge Gee found that “In light of the voluminous evidence that Plaintiffs have presented of the egregious conditions of the holding cells, the Court finds that Defendants have materially breached the Agreement’s term that Defendants provide ‘safe and sanitary’ holding cells for class members while they are in temporary custody.”

 Judge Gee’s decision sheds light on the conditions that many refugees experienced over the last two years. These children, branded by Fox News as “illegal aliens,” were, in fact, detained under illegal conditions. 

Patrick Young is an attorney at the Central American Refugee Center. 

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