Sixteen-year-old G.G. says she was apprehended in Texas by Border Patrol agents who told her they would kill her if she tried to run. “Your little scheme won’t work to keep you here in the U.S.,” an agent reportedly told her, accusing G.G. of lying when she told them her age. She says she was detained by Customs and Border Protection for a total of nine days in five different detention centers—each one worse than the last. CBP officials allegedly fed her moldy bread and, when she vomited from the food, accused her of being pregnant and called her a “dirty liar.” Her bed consisted of a thin sheet of paper on the floor of her cell and the bathroom, without doors or garbage cans, was covered in used toilet paper and sanitary pads. “You’re the garbage that contaminates this country,” CBP officials reportedly told her.
This is just one of 116 different, yet equally horrifying, individual tales included in a report released Tuesday (PDF) on alleged rampant abuses by U.S. Customs and Border Protection—the federal agency that includes Border Patrol—against unaccompanied immigrant children. The rapid influx of kids, many of them from Central America, illegally crossing the border into Texas over the past few months has captured recent headlines. Unable to accommodate all of the children apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley, Customs and Border Protection have been sending unaccompanied minors by the hundreds to detention centers in Arizona over the past few days and even more are expected. According to a recent investigation by Mother Jones, 70,000 kids will cross the border without parents this year. As senior administration officials confirmed during a media conference call earlier this week, the Department of Homeland Security, the agency that includes Customs and Border Protection, was in no way prepared for the high volume of undocumented children and, as such, are scrambling to accommodate them.
But CBP detention facilities have long been the epicenter of what many adult immigrants claim are severe human and civil rights abuses by officials. According to a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Border Litigation project and four other immigrants rights groups, child detainees are equally—if not more often—subjected to the same harsh conditions and physical, verbal and sexual abuse reported by their adult counterparts. Consistent, too, with a recent report by the American Immigration Council that 97 percent of Border Patrol complaints filed between 2009 and 2012 did not result in any action, children who report abuses to CBP officials mostly are ignored.
More than half of the children reported sexual harassment, death threats, and other forms of verbal abuse.
Spotlighting jarring testimonies from detained immigrant children, the groups concluded that such abuse is systemic and called on the Department of Homeland Security to investigate these alleged violations and implement policy changes to combat them.
According to the complaint, many of the children who cross alone and end up in detention are fleeing violence and extreme poverty in their home countries, mostly in Central America. Many of them have been subjected to abuse or trauma not only at home but also on their journeys through Mexico to the United States border, and are particularly vulnerable upon arrival.
In addition to the descriptions of freezing cold, overcrowded and unsanitary holding cells, one in four children referenced by Wednesday’s complaint said they were subjected to physical abuse—sexual, beatings, and even torture-style stress positions—by CBP officials. More than half of them reported sexual harassment, death threats, and other forms of verbal abuse. More than half said they were denied medical care and about 70 percent of them say they were detained beyond the 72-hour limit—though many report that it was hard to tell what time of day it was or how many days had passed because fluorescent lights were kept on at all hours.
Over 80 percent of the kids interviewed said they were denied adequate food and water. Many say they became sick after eating the frozen or moldy food the CBP officials gave them. One child said that while he was in custody, the drinking water came from a toilet tank. Many of the children reported being shackled while transported to and from CBP facilities, and 30 percent said that, when they were finally released, money and personal belongings that had been confiscated by CBP officials were not returned to them.
Spokespeople for the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Border Patrol did not return immediate requests for comment on this story. In an email to The Arizona Republic, DHS spokesman Michael Friel said, “While in temporary custody, CBP strives to protect unaccompanied children with special procedures and safeguards.”
The complaint conveys frustration felt by the ACLU, the National Immigration Justice Center, Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, Americans for Immigrant Justice, and the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, who say they’ve filed numerous complaints and published several reports on this very issue only to received silence from the Department of Homeland Security.
“By failing to meaningfully investigate or otherwise respond to consistent reports of systemic abuse,” they write. “DHS has demonstrated a continuing disregard for the civil and human rights of unaccompanied immigrant children.”