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Children at West Texas Migrant Shelters Facing Unsafe, Unhealthy Conditions, Attorneys Say

A legal filing alleges that children at two emergency migrant shelters in Pecos and El Paso are being held in “inherently unsafe and inappropriate” conditions that violate court-ordered standards.

By Travis Bubenik

Children held at two temporary migrant shelters in West Texas have reported mental and physical distress from overcrowding, a lack of medical attention, “inedible” food and other “shockingly deplorable conditions,” advocates said in court documents filed this week.

In a motion filed Monday in federal court, attorneys for the children accuse the Biden administration of violating court-ordered standards in its handling of the two “emergency intake sites” for young migrants in Pecos and El Paso, Texas.

The attorneys have asked a federal judge to force the administration to comply with those standards at the two facilities, to release the children “as expeditiously as possible” and to ban the government from placing “particularly vulnerable children” at either site. The minors at the facilities range in age from “tender age” children younger than 13 to older teenagers.

“For months, the children we have met with at the [shelters] have shared one horror story after the next,” Leecia Welch, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, said in a statement accompanying Monday’s court filing.

The two facilities, and others like them, were set up earlier this year to address the increase in the number of unaccompanied migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border. Officials have pledged to “wind down” such shelters, but more than 3,500 children were still being held at the West Texas sites as of late July, according to a government report. Hundreds of children were also being housed at similar facilities in California and Michigan, the report said.

Monday’s court filing included declarations from multiple minors who, in interviews with advocates, described cramped sleeping quarters, long waits for emergency medical needs and undercooked food.

“The chicken was raw, everything was raw,” said one unnamed teenager from Guatemala who was held at the El Paso shelter, located at the Fort Bliss Army base. “I ate it because I had no choice. I got sick from it.”

In the filing, Welch and other attorneys urged the judge to ensure that the emergency sites comply with the landmark Flores legal settlement, which sets standards for the treatment of detained migrant children.

Under that agreement, the government is generally required to release minors to sponsors or an outside care facility within 20 days, and sometimes earlier. But advocates claim some children at the El Paso and Pecos shelters are being held for much longer, sometimes 60 days or more, even when they have family members ready to take them in.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki addressed that issue at a press briefing on Tuesday, saying the administration is moving to process children out of the emergency sites and into the custody of parents or sponsors “as quickly as possible.”

“We also don’t want to put kids in the hands of people who are not vetted, so there is a balance there,” she said.

At times, the children’s court declarations describe positive experiences: some said they were provided clean clothes, ample opportunities to shower and better conditions than what they experienced immediately after being detained by Border Patrol agents.

Still, others reported feeling confused and depressed, while adults who cared for the children at the West Texas sites also raised concerns.

Whistle-blowers have repeatedly spoken out about the government’s treatment of migrant children in recent months. Arthur Pearlstein, who said in a court declaration accompanying Monday’s filing that he worked at the El Paso shelter for about two months earlier this year, claimed that he and other staffers were tasked with assessing children’s mental and emotional health, despite having “no relevant skills or experience.”

“Gross mismanagement, waste, and abuse of authority by those at the top who insisted on utmost secrecy led to mistreatment of thousands of children at Fort Bliss,” Pearlstein’s declaration read.

Monday’s court filing comes as other advocates in Texas urge the Biden administration to shut down the Pecos shelter, arguing that the former oil worker “man camp” is not designed to properly care for children.

The Texas-based group RAICES, whose advocates have visited the Pecos facility, claimed this week that its legal team knew of cases where children at the shelter had not received proper medical attention after breaking their bones.

Even before this week, the Fort Bliss shelter has been the subject of high-profile scrutiny, including allegations of staffers caught in “sexually inappropriate situations” with minors. A government watchdog agency is already investigating conditions at El Paso facility, though a spokesperson for the agency would not say whether or not a similar investigation is planned for the Pecos facility.

The Department of Health and Human Services oversees the two West Texas shelters. In a statement, a spokesperson did not directly respond to advocates’ claims of poor conditions, but said the department is “continuously working to improve the conditions and services required to safely care for children.”

“Currently, children at the Emergency Intake Site at Pecos meet with a case manager weekly and we have close to 80 case managers on site and over 100 remote case managers working with the children,” the spokesperson said.

A court hearing on the matter is currently set for Sept.17 before U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District of California. Gee oversees the broader Flores case that Monday’s motion was filed under.

Court documents could shed further light on conditions at the West Texas shelters in the coming weeks. The government is expected to file an updated count of migrant children in government custody by early September.

Meanwhile, Judge Gee has directed two people who monitor the government’s treatment of migrant children as part of the Flores case to place “special emphasis” on the Pecos and El Paso facilities. Those monitors could seek to file their own report before September’s court hearing.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.