Washington – In a federal shelter in Dallas, immigrant children sleep in a windowless room in the convention center under fluorescent lights that never go out.
At a military base in El Paso, teens stack up on bunk beds, and some say they spent days without bathing.
And in Erie, Pennsylvania, problems began to arise within days of the shelter’s construction: “The fire safety system is a major concern,” an internal report noted. Some of the hot water heaters were not working, and lice were a “huge problem and it appears to be increasing”.
Early this year, children crossed the southwestern border in Record numbers They were crammed into cold prison floors at Customs and Border Protection Detention facilities. they Sleep side by side on mats with blankets made of aluminum foil, Almost always much longer than the statutory limit of 72 hours. Republicans declared it a crisis. Democrats and immigration groups denounced the circumstances that had erupted into internationalism Embarrassment to President Biden, Who campaigned for a return to empathy in the immigration system.
Management responded with a quick stay Temporary and emergency shelters, Including some that can house thousands of children. But the next potential crisis is beginning to emerge.
Lesia Welch, an attorney and senior director for legal advocacy and childcare practices at the National Youth Law Center, is a nonprofit law firm focused on low-income children. “But the truth is that thousands of traumatized children are still languishing in huge detention sites in military bases or conference centers, and many of them have been excluded in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.”
Xavier Becera, Secretary of Health and Human Services, gave his best view of the situation in an interview on Friday. He noted that conditions in emergency facilities are varied. “It’s one site after another.”
On Thursday, he visited the department shelter at the Convention Center in Long Beach, California, where nearly 700 children, most of them 12 years of age or younger, reside – a fraction of the 20,000 immigrant minors in government custody.
“Not only did I feel grateful to see it work, but I was actually satisfied with what I saw,” said Mr. Becera. This was his first shelter tour since he was Has been confirmed In the middle of March.
There is broad agreement that the emergency shelters, run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services, are an improvement of Border Guard facilities. But interviews with child advocates and a review of weeks of internal reports obtained by The New York Times paint a picture of a shelter system with widely varying conditions, some far below the standard of care promised by the Biden administration.
“No foster care system in America will allow children to stay in these kinds of places for weeks or months,” said Ms. Welch, who visited shelters and interviewed the children about their stay.
None of the shelters were open to the public, and Ms. Welch said she and her team members were not permitted to take pictures there. Her organization monitors the government’s commitment to a The 1997 settlement that set conditions On how immigrant children are detained in the United States. Many of the groups that work with the federal government to provide caregivers aren’t allowed to talk about what they see.
One of the children Ms. Welch met was a 10-year-old girl who had arrived at the border alone because her mother had been kidnapped during her journey north. She spent nearly three weeks in Border Patrol custody this year before being transported to the shelter in Erie, Pennsylvania.
The heat was broken in three rooms, including one with an isolated child who was sick with Covid-19 and complained about the cold. There were just not enough clothes for children to wear in the cold springtime of Pennsylvania. The shelter was understaffed, with “volunteers overloaded, stressful and overworked,” according to a government assessment.
Cleaning was scarce, and so was garbage removal. Gas leakage in and out of the place where the children live. The shelter closed on April 26.
Another Houston shelter closed months earlier than officials planned. Ms. Welch said the building, which housed 500 girls between the ages of 13 and 17, had encountered problems from the start. She described the shelter as an inaccessible outdoor warehouse, where children would go days without showers. She said the food made them sick, and some of them had fainting spells from not eating. She said they were not allowed to go to the bathroom after 10 p.m.
These emergency shelters are not required by law It sets a standard of care It is usually supervised by the Refugee Office. This network of licensed shelters, which hold less than 10,000 children, is not large enough to handle the surge of migrants this year. Biden aides say even this limited capacity declined during the Trump administration.
The emergency facilities were supposed to accommodate migrant children for very short periods, but the minors would remain in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services for about a month.
“These facilities are designed and strengthened with the goal of achieving speed Reuniting with parentsMaria M. Odom, Senior Vice President, Legal Programs, said Children in need of defense.
However, the significant shortage of case managers assigned to place children with family members and other sponsors leads to an extension of the stay in these shelters. The government has hired contractors to fill these roles at some of the shelters, and federal employees of other agencies have volunteered to help. But it is far from enough.
Modest improvements in recent times It means that more children are released from government care every day than children are removed from border guards. On Monday, 427 children were released from government custody and 358 children were transferred, according to recent data.
But unaccompanied children still came to the border; Under Biden administration policy, they were allowed in, and not turned away as they were Under the Trump administration.
At an emergency shelter at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Michael L. Sainz-Rodriguez, an immigration attorney, described a facility intended to accommodate 2,000 children, most of them teenage boys. She said, “It’s literally a big ballroom with no exterior windows and typical fluorescent lighting” that never turns off.
For weeks, internal documents indicated an unmet need for urgent child mental health counseling. At times, there was no mental health staff on site.
The Dallas shelter closes at the end of the month because the lease expires, and so does another emergency shelter in San Antonio. The Biden administration is looking to house more children in Fort Bliss, near El Paso, which has the largest emergency shelter in the network with room for more than 5,000 children. According to internal documents, the administration plans to house up to 10,000 children there, half of whom will be 12 years old or younger. There are currently around 4,400 teenagers.
“I am surprised to learn that Fort Bliss will increase its capacity to 10,000 beds,” said Eileen Beatty, Director of the International Rescue Committee. “It was hard to imagine that this was in the interest of the children there,” she added.
Betty said the government usually preferred to house young children in smaller facilities.
Living conditions at the Fort Bliss shelter, which are made of soft-sided tents, are less than desirable. Ms. Welch, who visited late last month, said she smelled like a high school locker room. I spoke to children who have not received clean clothes in days.
Ms. Welch described the precarious “bunk cot” in which children sleep and which could collapse while playing. She said the linens did not appear to be washed regularly.
While there is an option to play soccer outside in the Texas heat, some kids tell her they don’t want it because they don’t know when they’ll get clean clothes.
“Children generally describe a feeling of care and a feeling of hopelessness,” said Ms. Welch.
The Trump administration has come under widespread criticism over the dossier Tent City that opened in Tornio, TexasOn desert land outside El Paso that had more than 2,800 children and adolescents in 2019. “But Fort Bliss is much worse in all respects,” Ms. Welch said, “It conflicts with everything we know about proper care and treatment of traumatized children.”
After the Erie shelter closed, the 10-year-old, who had been in the crowded Border Guard facility for nearly three weeks, was transferred again, this time to a small emergency shelter in a remote location in Albion, Michigan. Welch said. Ms Welch said the girl and other children at the shelter were loaded onto pickup trucks without providing any explanation as to why they were moving more than 300 miles away. She visited the shelter last week, where there were 190 children, 12 years old or younger. The facility was nearly 70 percent full.
Ms. Welch said the children slept in bunk beds in a room that seats 14. There is a seating area, kitchenette, and space to play games such as Connect Four.
“They are not mistreated,” said Ms. Welch. “But a lot of kids are really sad because they want to be with their families, and they don’t understand why it takes so long.”
Mr. Becera said he blamed the immigration system for the situation.
He said, “If we have to work with this crippled immigration system, at least let us do it right. Let’s do what we can.”
He added, “I do not know what their final fate will be.” “But I know this – that while they are in my custody, they will be safe, and they will be taken care of.”
Zolan Kanoo Youngs Contribute to reporting.