WASHINGTON - The inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said his office was "unable to substantiate" any of 16 allegations of mistreatment of unaccompanied children who were apprehended at the U.S. border and were taken into custody, including claims they were packed into cold cells, made to sleep on the floor and not given proper food and medical care.
The assessment was based on 57 unannounced site visits to 41 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities in Texas and New Mexico that house children in the second half of July, including three visits to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico. The department is still investigating another 100 claims made by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and four other advocacy groups, Inspector General John Roth said in a memo released Tuesday.
The findings were presented to federal prosecutors, but Roth said they declined to prosecute "based on the absence of criminal activities."
The ACLU and other groups filed a complaint to DHS in June reporting "systematic abuse" of the children who were apprehended. They said one in four children in the complaint reported some form of physical abuse, and that more than half reported verbal abuse or denial of medical care. Eighty percent said they did not receive adequate food or water.
The complaints included a 13-year-old boy who said he was threatened by an official with a metal rod and was later sexually molested while in custody, a 14-year-old girl who reported her asthma inhaler was confiscated, and a 14-year-old boy who said he was unable to sleep for five days because the lights were always on. A 16-year-old boy said an official told him, "You are in my country now, and we are going to bury you in a hole."
James Lyall, a staff attorney for the ACLU in Arizona described Roth's memo as "an interim report," and the findings don't discount how severe and widespread the complaints are. He added the allegations mirror thousands of other complaints filed in recent years.
"The fact that they haven't been able to substantiate these allegations certainly doesn't mean that they aren't true," Lyall said. "At some point where there's smoke, there's fire. The sheer weight and substance of these complaints, across sites, across time, certainly should raise alarms."
During the site visits, DHS checked to ensure the facilities were complying with laws and department policies about treatment of the children. The requirements include providing access to clean toilets and sinks, adequate food and water and access to emergency medical care and telephones.
More than 62,000 child immigrants have been apprehended crossing the southern border since the beginning of last October, mostly in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. The wave of unaccompanied children overwhelmed the Border Patrol's facilities, prompting the agency to house children in temporary holding cells. Thousands of children were also transferred to other Border Patrol facilities along the border, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement has sought facilities to house the children once they are transferred out of CBP custody and awaiting the chance to appear before an immigration judge.
DHS said number of children crossing the border dropped by more than half between June and July, allowing the federal government to close the temporary shelters that it hurriedly opened to handle the surge, but officials warn that traffic could pick up again once the cooler fall weather sets in.