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Migrant children describe poor conditions at makeshift U.S. shelters in interviews with attorneys

Migrant children housed at two makeshift U.S. government shelters, an Army base in west Texas and a Houston warehouse that has been shuttered, described subpar living conditions, including limited access to showers, soiled clothes and undercooked food, attorneys who interviewed them told CBS News.

Unaccompanied children housed at the two Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) emergency housing facilities — which are not licensed to care for minors — also reported feeling sad and desperate while in U.S. government custody, attorney Leecia Welch said, citing recent interviews with more than 30 migrant girls and boys.

Several migrant children reported suicidal thoughts and talk of self-harm among other youths, Welch said, detailing "serious mental health deterioration" among some of the minors she interviewed. The minors longed to be with their families, Welch added, but some had not spoken to case managers charged with facilitating their reunifications.

As of late last week, more than 13,000 of the 20,000 migrant children in HHS care were being housed in the 13 emergency facilities the department has set up in military bases, convention centers, camps for oil workers and other sites, according to internal government documents obtained by CBS News.

The emergency facilities have significantly lower standards of care than the dozens of shelters overseen by HHS that are licensed by state authorities to house minors, according to internal guidelines obtained by CBS News. The Biden administration has already been forced to abruptly shutter two emergency sites, including the Houston warehouse, which was closed because of inadequate conditions endured by the migrant girls housed there.

As of late April, more than 300 migrant boys had spent over 50 days at a Dallas convention center, another HHS emergency site without access to the outdoors, according to government data shared with lawyers representing migrant children in the court case over the landmark Flores agreement, which governs the care of minors in U.S. immigration custody.

As counsel in the Flores case, Welch and her colleagues at the National Center for Youth Law are entitled to interview minors in U.S. immigration custody. HHS has not allowed reporters to enter its emergency housing facilities, despite repeated requests from CBS News dating back to March.

The conditions highlighted by the migrant children who were interviewed by Welch and her team underscore the acute logistical and humanitarian challenges the Biden administration continues to face as a result of the record number of arrivals of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border in the past three months. 

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Migrant youths are seen inside the Cotton Logistics oilfield housing that was constructed in 2012 to temporarily house workers in the oil industry in Midland, Texas on April 5, 2021. JUSTIN HAMEL/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past several weeks, the Biden administration has dramatically reduced the number of unaccompanied children stuck in ill-suited and severely overcrowded Border Patrol facilities. However, the government is still housing more than 19,000 unaccompanied youths in facilities overseen by HHS, including the mass makeshift shelters, four of which are housing more than 1,000 minors each.

The children will remain in HHS custody until the department releases them to a sponsor, typically a family member in the U.S., or until they turn of legal age. 

"There's no question the administration has worked tirelessly to move children to places that are safer than Border Patrol facilities," Welch told CBS News. "But, nonetheless, I think we are woefully failing the children detained in many of these places."

Welch and her colleagues interviewed more than a dozen girls and boys held at Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army base that is currently housing more than 4,000 migrant children in HHS custody. The site includes multiple white tents that each house about 900 children, who sleep on bunk cots.

"You'd walk into the tent and it's just rows and rows of these little flimsy bunk cots as far as the eye can see," Welch said.

Welch said she detected a foul odor inside the tents, likening them to a boys locker room. Several children reported not having their clothes washed consistently, she added, noting that one girl said she had not worn clean clothes in more than a week.

There was no formal education for the children housed at Fort Bliss, Welch added. Boys and girls have access to outside recreation, but Welch said the minors reported spending much of their time near their cots.

"A number of girls described to me situations where day in and day out they would just sleep during the day because there was nothing else to pass the time," Welch said, noting the prolonged stays at Fort Bliss negatively affected the emotional well-being of children.

Some children told Welch they had trouble sleeping at night because of the cold, dust inside the facility and the wind rattling the tent's metal frame.

According to internal government documents, the Biden administration is planning to expand bed capacity at Fort Bliss to be able to house 10,000 children there, including up to 5,000 "tender age" minors under the age of 12. The documents note that Fort Bliss does not have enough youth care workers for the number of minors currently housed there.

"From a child welfare perspective, I disagree with housing hundreds of kids in shelters to begin with. And now we're being told the best long-term plan our government can come up with is to warehouse thousands of kids in tents on a military base?" Welch said. "We won't play any part in normalizing that when we see children suffering."

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The U.S. Army Fort Bliss base stands in El Paso, Texas, U.S. Bloomberg

Welch said she and her team interviewed 16 teenage girls previously housed at the Houston emergency facility, which was closed in mid-April.

The girls reported being constantly hungry and thirsty while at the Houston site, saying access to water was limited and describing food portions as insufficient, Welch said. Some reported servings of inadequate food, including undercooked chicken and expired items.

Access to 5-minute showers was also limited, with some girls saying they showered twice in 15 days, according to Welch. One girl said they were sometimes not provided clean underwear and were instructed to turn their underwear inside out. After 10 p.m., the girls were not allowed to use the bathroom, they told Welch.

Welch said the Houston site did not offer the girls educational services or any outside recreational activities. Phone calls to family were also limited, the children reported. "There was literally nothing to do," she added. "They sat on their cots all day."

Field guidance issued by HHS on April 30 concedes that emergency facilities "are not designed or intended to provide the full range of services available at traditional" shelters. The guidelines require basic services like food, medical care and showers but do not say how often children should be fed or allowed to shower.

The guidance also allows emergency sites to start providing children access to phone calls, case management, legal counsel, recreation and education "as soon as possible and to the extent practicable," without specifying a timetable. There's no limit on how long children can be housed at these sites.

In a statement, HHS said it "is committed to ensuring the wellbeing of children in our care."

"We proactively closed the Erie and Houston facilities because they didn't meet our standard of care and we are working tirelessly with contractors to ensure those standards are met at sites operating today," the department said. "Our goal has always been to get children through this process as quickly as possible and into the arms of vetted parents or legal sponsors, and that's what we are doing as we continue working around the clock to lower the amount of time that children spend in our care."

An HHS official called the emergency housing facilities "temporary, stopgap mechanisms," conceding the current makeshift shelter system is not "ideal" or "a perfect scenario." The department wants to close the sites in "a gradual way," the official added.

"We've never stood up facilities as quickly as these facilities. Typically, we get all the contracts in place, we get everything done at a site and then we open up when everything is ready on Day One," the HHS official told CBS News on Friday. "If we had done that, then we would be opening up a facility today, rather than opening up a facility back in March. And in the meantime, we would have still had thousands of kids in Border Patrol — which would have been completely unacceptable."

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Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services, speaks following a tour of an emergency intake site to care for the arrival of unaccompanied migrant children at the Long Beach Convention center on May 13, 2021, in Long Beach, California. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

The HHS official said the department has been working to scale up services at the emergency facilities, noting that two sites were closed because they were not able to improve conditions. "It's not acceptable for children's needs to not be taken care of," the official said.

Two of HHS' makeshift shelters, a convention center in Dallas and a coliseum in San Antonio, are set to close next Tuesday as the lease on the sites will be expiring. According to internal documents, HHS is working to add more beds at a former camp for oil workers in Pecos, Texas and at the Fairplex grounds in Pomona, California, so the sites can house 2,000 and 2,500 children, respectively.

HHS is also finalizing an agreement with California to use the Camp Roberts National Guard post as an emergency housing site. The facility would house up to 5,000 migrant children, according to the internal documents.

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