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U.S. border agents are separating migrant children from their parents to avoid overcrowding, inspector finds

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Washington — U.S. Border Patrol agents separated migrant children as young as 8 from their parents for several days this summer to avoid overcrowding in a short-term holding facility, an independent federal court monitor said Friday, raising concerns about the physiological impact of such separations.

Dr. Paul Wise, the federal court monitor, said he learned during two visits to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection tent facility in Donna, Texas, last month that migrant boys and girls had been separated from their parents and held away from their families, in a different part of the site, for as many as four days.

Wise, a pediatrician, said Border Patrol officials told him the children and parents were separated for operational reasons, namely to prevent overcrowding in pods housing families. The separated children, Wise added, were kept in pods typically reserved for unaccompanied minors that had more space.

Most of the migrant children interviewed by Wise and his colleague indicated not knowing of "any protocols that would allow them to request a visit with their parents," he wrote in a 71-page report filed in the federal district court in Los Angeles. Wise's visits to the Donna facility occurred on Aug. 11 and Aug. 30.

"Separated children included girls separated from mothers and boys separated from their fathers," Wise wrote. "None of the interviewed children had visited with their parents since they were separated, including children who had been separated for 4 days."

Wise noted the separations could adversely affect children's mental health. The interviews with separated children at the Donna site, he wrote, "revealed significant emotional distress related to separation, including sustained crying and disorientation" stemming from their inability to communicate with their parents.

"Separating a child from a parent can be profoundly traumatic for children and can have lasting, harmful effects," he wrote. "While the risk of these effects is elevated among tender aged children and can vary based on a variety of factors, the potential that separating a child and parent while in CBP custody will have serious, deleterious effects remains substantial for all children."

Border Patrol, a CBP agency, is typically supposed to house migrants for no longer than three days before transporting them to another federal agency, deporting them or releasing them with a court notice or check-in appointments.

In a statement to CBS News, a spokesperson for CBP said the agency appreciated "Dr. Wise's oversight," noting it was reviewing his report and that it would respond "as appropriate."

"The situations described within the report are completely different from previous policies of separating families," the spokesperson added. "CBP is committed to family unity: our policies prioritize the safety and wellbeing of children and ensure that families are released out of CBP custody together. We also remain committed to continuing to improve the care of individuals in CBP custody."

The report's findings illustrate the operational and humanitarian challenges faced by Border Patrol due to a recent spike in migrant crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border. While illegal border crossings there dropped to a two-year low in June, they have increased sharply in recent weeks, driven in part by record arrivals of families traveling with minor children.

The Biden administration, which promised to build a more "humane" system for processing migrants, has sought to manage migration by expanding opportunities for migrants to enter the country legally, while imposing stricter asylum rules for those who enter the country unlawfully. But it has struggled to reduce illegal crossings amid mass displacement in the Western Hemisphere, and its strategy has garnered criticism from Republicans who see it as too lenient, and from progressives, who say it relies too heavily on Trump-like policies, such as the limits on asylum.

Appointed by the L.A.-based federal judge overseeing the decades-old Flores court settlement, which governs the care of migrant children in U.S. custody, Wise is charged with ensuring Border Patrol facilities are complying with the agreement and providing basic services to minors.

In his report Friday, Wise said the separations he documented at the Donna tent complex raise "important concerns regarding CBP compliance with the Settlement as well as for the general and potentially long-term well-being of the children affected by this custodial policy."

But Wise said the Flores agreement gives Border Patrol some "discretion" to separate families if there's an "operational need." He also stressed that the separations he described Friday were markedly different from those that occurred under the Trump administration's infamous "zero tolerance" policy.

Under the "zero tolerance" policy, the Trump administration systematically and forcibly separated thousands of migrant children from their families to deter migration by prosecuting the parents for crossing into the U.S. illegally. The policy ended in 2018 due to massive public uproar and a court ruling.

"The separations observed in the (Texas' Rio Grande Valley) pertained only to the families' time in custody, as parents and children were reunited upon their release from custody," Wise noted.

While Wise said in his report that Border Patrol denied separating children younger than 8 from their parents, he noted that lawyers representing migrant youth in the Flores case reported separations involving younger minors.

One of those lawyers, Neha Desai, said she recognized that Border Patrol is facing "significant space constraints," but added that "family separation cannot be the solution."

"We were horrified to learn several weeks ago that family separation is occurring routinely within CBP," said Desai, a lawyer at the National Center for Youth Law. "Dr. Wise's report not only confirms what we learned, but demonstrates that the separations are taking place in a more widespread and ongoing manner than we realized."

Citing visits to several holding facilities, Wise said he found that Border Patrol was generally complying with its obligation to provide basic necessities to children in its custody, including food, water, showers and medical services. But he noted that young children were receiving adult meals and that some families were not being provided sleeping mats while in custody. 

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