U.S. government facilities holding migrant children along the border with Mexico are "stretched beyond thin," an independent monitor concluded after visiting the sites, saying acute overcrowding has created unsafe conditions for thousands of minors in U.S. custody.
In a report filed late Friday to the federal court in Los Angeles, two inspectors appointed by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee to monitor conditions faced by children in U.S. immigration custody detailed "severe overcrowding" at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities in south Texas.
Social distancing was "functionally impossible" inside the holding facilities, the experts said, calling the level of overcrowding "not sustainable." In one over-capacity facility, there were not enough caregivers for the 500 migrant children under the age of 12 who were held there, the report said.
"Physical distancing precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have, out of necessity, been set aside and still, CBP facilities — which are not appropriate for minors, in any event — have been stretched beyond thin," Andrea Sheridan Ordin, the court-appointed independent monitor, and Paul Wise, a medical expert, wrote in their report.
Overcrowding was so widespread at CBP's main holding facility for unaccompanied children and families in Donna, Texas, that on certain days there was no space between the mats migrants used to sleep, the report said, citing visits Wise made in March.
"The open spaces designed for walking, reading, or play are also fully occupied by mats," the report said, referring to the tent complex in Donna. "The showers designed for an occupancy of 1,000 are occupied all day, with some children reporting that they did not receive showers for days at a time."
As of March 30, there were approximately 3,000 unaccompanied migrant children held at the Donna facility, including 2,500 minors who had been in Border Patrol custody beyond the 72-hour legal limit. About 500 of the unaccompanied minors were younger than 12 years of age.
Wise found the number of caregivers charged with caring for the "tender age" unaccompanied children at Donna to be "profoundly inadequate." Due to the amount of young children, the caregivers had to focus on only caring for very young minors and those with special needs.
The independent monitor, appointed as part of the long-standing case over the Flores Settlement Agreement, which governs the care of migrant children in U.S. custody, noted that water, fruits and snacks for children and families in U.S. custody were "plentiful." Baby formula and diapers were also available.
The report highlighted that Border Patrol deployed teams of nurses and physician assistants to its stations and the Donna facility to screen migrant children and families, and provide them necessary medical services. But the monitor said an "unsustainable burden" has been placed on the medical staff working at Donna, who are now being helped by two teams from the U.S. Public Health Service.
"Performing the responsibilities listed above for several thousand migrant children is difficult enough," the report said. "However, this task is exacerbated by the fact that minors generally present to the facility in large groups, at times numbering close to 200, thereby placing an immediate and at times overwhelming demand for health intake interviews, screenings, and medical assessments."
The report said the conditions, taken together, created an "unsafe environment" for children. CBP did not respond to requests to comment on the independent monitor's findings.
Friday's report corroborates findings about the Donna tent by lawyers who interviewed children held there and journalists who toured the facility this week. Earlier in the week, the Donna facility was at 1,624% of its pandemic-era capacity, with pods designed to hold 32 migrants under COVID-19 mitigation protocols housing more than 600 unaccompanied children.
The overcrowding at border facilities stems from the historic number of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and the limited shelter beds for them.
U.S. officials encounteredunaccompanied children along the southern border in March, a record monthly high. As of Friday morning, there were nearly 5,400 unaccompanied minors in short-term Border Patrol holding facilities, which the Biden administration has said are not appropriate for children.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is responsible for the long-term housing of unaccompanied children until it can place them with a family member in the U.S., has been scrambling to get children out of Border Patrol facilities.
HHS has identified ten emergency housing sites to accommodate the increasing number of children crossing the southern border, including convention centers, camps for oil workers, military bases and a Houston church hall that received 466 migrant girls on Friday. It is also considering additional sites, including the Camp Roberts National Guard post in California.
While the independent monitor said the opening of the emergency facilities represented "a constructive strategy" to get children out of Border Patrol custody, it recommended in its report that HHS develop standards for the care of minors in these facilities.
CBS NewsThursday that lawyers who inspected two of the emergency HHS sites expressed concern about the limited access to case managers, phone calls to family, outdoor recreation and education that children housed there reported having.
In a statement, HHS said case management, education and recreation "are being provided to the extent possible in emergency settings."