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Biden administration sued over substandard conditions at emergency sites for migrant teens

Biden admin. sued over conditions at 2 migrant sites
Biden administration sued over conditions at 2 Texas sites for migrant teens 05:56

Lawyers representing children in U.S. immigration custody asked a federal court on Monday to order the release of migrant teenagers from two emergency housing sites in Texas where minors have reported mental distress, substandard conditions, prolonged stays and inadequate services.

In their lawsuit before the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the attorneys accused the Biden administration of violating the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement and its rules regarding the treatment of migrant children, which the federal government is legally obliged to follow.

At the center of the 31-page complaint are two makeshift housing facilities for unaccompanied migrant children that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) established this spring at the Fort Bliss U.S. Army base and a camp for oil workers in Pecos, a remote town in west Texas.

The suit marks the first time the Biden administration has been sued by attorneys responsible for ensuring the government is complying with the Flores Agreement. The complaint, which includes testimony from more than a dozen children in U.S. care, expands on reporting about the emergency sites, which do not have child-welfare licenses, unlike traditional HHS shelters.

"My anxiety attacks have been abnormal here — they have gotten worse since I arrived at Pecos," a 16-year-old migrant girl from El Salvador said in a court declaration. "I have had about 3 or 4 anxiety attacks since I have been here."

Another migrant girl housed at the Pecos facility said her 15-year-old brother, who had been at the site for 60 days, became "depressed" because they were not being released to their relative.

"I am very concerned that there are so many kids who have been here for over 60 days," the 17-year-old Honduran girl said in her declaration. "Some of these youth are waiting to live with their parents — they should not still be here."

Migrant teenagers at the Fort Bliss emergency housing site sleep inside tents that house hundreds of children, in a photo obtained by CBS News from a source.

Two Honduran brothers reported being held at the Pecos site for 65 days, despite having an uncle in Houston willing to care for them. "Every day, I wake up and feel very sad. I am frustrated because I see other kids leave before me," the oldest brother, who is 15, said in his court testimony.

As of August 4, the Fort Bliss and Pecos facilities were housing 1,800 and 800 unaccompanied children, respectively, according to federal data obtained by CBS News. The administration is planning to house "tender age" children under the age of 12 at the Pecos camp, according to a government contract from July.

In addition to concerns about prolonged stays and limited case management, children housed at the Pecos facility reported being served undercooked food. They also described limited educational and recreational services. 

Monday's complaint asked U.S. Judge Dolly Gee, who has been overseeing the litigation over the Flores agreement, to direct the Biden administration to expedite the release of children from the Pecos and Fort Bliss facilities. 

The attorneys are also seeking to require HHS to establish higher standards of care at the emergency sites and to limit the placement of young children, parenting teens, indigenous youth and other vulnerable minors at the facilities.

The tent camp at the Fort Bliss Army base is the largest facility the U.S. has ever set up to house migrant children. A photo of the tent camp was provided to CBS News by a source. 

Leecia Welch, a National Center for Youth Law attorney who represents children in the Flores settlement case, said she hopes Monday's complaint will usher "immediate improvements to alleviate children's suffering," saying the minors her team has interviewed feel imprisoned and hopeless.

"Unfortunately, despite a massive multi-agency effort and many hundreds of millions of dollars lining the pockets of private government contractors, thousands of children continue to languish in standardless, makeshift mega tent cities and abandoned mining mancamp barracks in remote locations in the Texas desert," Welch told CBS News.   

CBS News has reported that migrant teenagers held at the tent camp inside Fort Bliss have been constantly monitored for self-harm, escape attempts and panic attacks. Federal officials who worked at the tents have also described subpar mental health services and a jail-like environment.

In a declaration filed Monday, a 16-year-old boy from Honduras who was transferred to a more restrictive shelter in New York after trying to escape from Fort Bliss described his time at the Army base as "hell," saying he was served bloody chicken.

"I felt anguished and hopeless," the boy said. "I was held hostage and I couldn't do anything about it."

A photo provided by a source shows migrant children walking outside tents inside a camp at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Ryan Matlow, a child psychologist and Stanford University professor who interviewed migrant teens held at Fort Bliss, said children could suffer "clinically significant psychological harm" if they remain in large-scale sites like the Army base's tent camp for longer than a few days.

"In these circumstances, many children experience extreme boredom, lethargy, low motivation, hopelessness, and helplessness, all of which are symptoms and contributors to depression and psychological stress," Matlow wrote in another declaration, citing face-to-face interviews with eight teens.

The Biden administration has defended the creation of the emergency HHS sites, saying they were necessary to get migrant children out of ill-suited Border Patrol holding facilities, which were dangerously overcrowded in the early spring.

HHS has closed most of the 14 emergency facilities it set up at military sites, convention centers and work camps to house minors who crossed the southern border without their parents. Some of them, including a Houston warehouse, closed after reports surfaced detailing poor conditions.

The administration has yet to say when it will wind down operations at the remaining four emergency sites, which are supposed to be temporary. HHS has said improvements are being made to the facilities, especially at Fort Bliss, which is at the center of an internal watchdog probe.

In a statement on Tuesday, HHS said children housed at the Fort Bliss and Pecos facilities have access to educational and recreational activities, such as reading, dancing and athletics. The minors also can call family members, meet with case managers on a weekly basis and talk to mental health specialists. 

"While we can't speak to the specifics of the court filing, we take our responsibility to provide safe, appropriate care for unaccompanied migrant children very seriously," the department said. "Any potential incident previously reported would have led to an investigation and disciplinary action as warranted." 

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