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Migrant children endure "despair and isolation" inside tent city in the Texas desert

Migrant children struggle at Texas site
Migrant children struggle at Texas site 06:45

The level of distress among migrant boys and girls held by the U.S. government at a tent city in the Texas desert has become so alarming that they are constantly monitored for incidents of self-harm, panic attacks and escape attempts, people who worked at the federal site told CBS News.

Some children held at the large tent complex at the Fort Bliss U.S. Army base have required one-on-one supervision 24 hours a day to ensure they don't hurt themselves. Others have refused to eat or spend most of their days sleeping on cots. Workers said they saw migrant girls and boys with cut marks on their wrists and arms.

Federal officials became so concerned about migrant teens harming themselves that they banned pencils, pens, scissors, nail clippers and regular toothbrushes inside tents housing hundreds of children, according to an internal document. Workers at the site said they were even instructed to remove the metal nose clips from N95 face masks.

In a federal court declaration filed Monday, a 13-year-old Honduran girl who had been housed at Fort Bliss for 58 days as of June 6 said some teens used their identification cards to cut themselves. She said she was placed on the "suicide watch list" along with 28 other youths.

"I have been here for a really long time. I really want to leave. It's sad because all my friends are waiting for the staff to call my name to be released because I have been here for such a long time," the Honduran girl said, according to the declaration.

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The emergency intake site at Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas, on March 31, 2021. KFOX/CBS4

As of Tuesday, Fort Bliss was holding about 1,600 migrant teenagers, but the sprawling complex can house up to 10,000 children. While the site is supposed to be a makeshift shelter overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), workers said the children held there see it more like a jail.

"They've gone from a small cage at Border Patrol to a larger cage at Fort Bliss," one federal government employee who worked at the site told CBS News. "It's a juvenile detention facility."

During one incident in May, a group of teenage boys protested inside a tent, issuing a list of demands to improve their living conditions, three workers said.

On May 4, five children unsuccessfully tried to run away from Fort Bliss by jumping a fence near the recreation area. After being transferred to another facility with stricter security protocols, one of the boys said he tried to escape from Fort Bliss because it was too crowded, hot and the food was not good, according to a report reviewed by CBS News.

Interviews with three federal volunteers, two private contractors, two lawyers and a member of Congress, as well as court declarations from minors in U.S. custody, offer the most detailed look yet at the distress endured by unaccompanied youth held at the tent city in Fort Bliss, the largest facility the U.S. government has ever set up to house migrant children.

The concerned federal employees, who volunteered to work at the site, requested anonymity to discuss their time at Fort Bliss because they're still employed by other government agencies. The contractors were hired to work at the base by private companies and fear they could be fired for speaking out.

The workers said the children's restlessness and frustration has been largely driven by prolonged stays at Fort Bliss. The children long to be with families in the U.S. but many languish at the Army base for weeks and even months with no updates on their release.

"There's very little communicated to these kids about the process and amount of time they'll be here," another federal government employee who volunteered at Fort Bliss told CBS News. "So they live in constant doubt, uncertainty and fear about what's gonna happen to them."

According to data shared with CBS News, more than 100 children had been housed at Fort Bliss for 60 days or longer as of earlier this month. Sixteen boys had been at the site since it opened on March 30, 2021.

Carlos Holguín, one of the lead attorneys representing migrant children in a landmark federal court case, visited Fort Bliss earlier this month to monitor conditions and interview minors housed there. He said the young people he spoke to were visibly distressed, noting some "were close to their breaking points."

"I saw that in the faces of virtually every kid I interviewed at Fort Bliss: A sense of despair and isolation," Holguín told CBS News.

Holguín likened Fort Bliss to "industrial scale detention," saying the tent city is not an adequate place for children who have trekked hundreds of miles to reach U.S. soil.

"It cannot be healthy for children who have left endemic violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America, endured the gauntlet that they had run to get here from Mexico and then to wind up in a facility that is so large and impersonal as Fort Bliss," Holguín added.

HHS has not allowed any journalists inside Fort Bliss nor any of the other emergency facilities it stood up this spring to house unaccompanied children encountered at the southern border. CBS News has made several requests since March.

Like the other emergency HHS facilities, which include convention centers and work camps, Fort Bliss was opened to alleviate dangerous overcrowding inside Border Patrol facilities.

After the emergency sites opened, the number of children detained by Border Patrol plummeted. However, HHS still has more than 14,000 unaccompanied minors in its care, with many of them housed at the emergency sites.

Unlike traditional HHS shelters, the emergency sites do not have state licenses that certify they can care for minors. They also have lower standards of care and limited services, including case management, which allows children to be released to family members in the U.S.

A Border Town In The Middle Of A Political Debate
The U.S. Army Fort Bliss base stands in El Paso, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Bloomberg

While she understands why they were initially set up, Leecia Welch, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, said the government should be winding down the emergency facilities and focusing on releasing children to family or placing them in traditional shelters. She called her visit to Fort Bliss a "soul-crushing experience."

"The government makes a poor parent to begin with — and Fort Bliss exemplifies this beyond measure," Welch told CBS News.

Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents the Texas district where Fort Bliss is located, has visited the emergency site four times. She said she has identified "chronic problems" with children spending prolonged periods of time at the base and not being connected with case managers.

"I have raised this issue every single time I've been there and I'm not seeing improvements," Escobar told CBS News.

Children she has spoken to at Fort Bliss tend to tell her they feel depressed and despondent, Escobar said.

"The same thing always happens: the minute that children see that I'm talking to a couple of girls or a couple of boys, I'm immediately surrounded by dozens who are desperate to tell me what's going on with them. And it's literally the same story over and over," Escobar added.

In response to this report, HHS noted that the number of children housed at Fort Bliss has decreased significantly since reaching nearly 5,000 in April. The department said it has expanded legal and mental health services at the emergency housing site.

"From exercise classes to weekly meetings with case managers for every child at Fort Bliss, we've worked hard to provide access to recreation, counseling and behavioral health services and more," HHS said in a statement. "There is a library on site which kids are encouraged to visit anytime, weekly spiritual services and comment boxes in every residential space for kids to confidentially reach out with concerns."  

One of the federal government employees who volunteered to work at Fort Bliss said she frequently witnessed girls having panic attacks that involved seizure-like symptoms.

"I have panic attacks and I understand panic attacks. You get shortness of breath, and you kind of feel like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to die,' and everything is sort of doom and gloom," the federal worker said. "These girls are having it exponentially worse."

"Their bodies start to twist," a contractor working at Fort Bliss said of the panic attacks. "They can't take it anymore."

According to another court declaration, a 17-year-old Guatemalan girl who had been held at Fort Bliss for 60 days as of earlier this month told lawyers that she cried often. She said her level of anxiety and blood pressure increased, noting that she once fainted. 

Sleeping inside her tent was also difficult, the girl added, saying she was prescribed medication after not sleeping for three days. She said she was sometimes allowed to talk to counselors, but that the sessions did not provide much solace.

"I used to be able to cope with my anxiety and breathe through it, but now I feel like I've given up," the girl said. "I feel like I'll never get out of here."

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