OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
Two human rights groups have launched a major lawsuit against the Biden administration, accusing it of enabling child abuse at detention centers where unaccompanied minors who illegally enter the country are being housed.
Filed by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and the National Center for Youth Law, a 276-page filing in the United States District Court, Central District of California, names U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and others as defendants in the case – urging Garland to compel the Department of Health and Human Services to stop the abuse and mistreatment of children at migrant detention centers.
The lawsuit names two specific intake sites in Fort Bliss and Pecos, Texas, where widespread child abuse is allegedly being committed.
Attorneys for the human rights groups argue that children are being held in “unsanitary” and “dilapidated” facilities where they’re forced to eat raw, undercooked, and even rotten food.
The children are also allegedly subjected to sexual abuse and exposed to widespread illness.
“Predictably, several EISs, most notably the Fort Bliss and Pecos EISs, have become notorious for failing to provide vulnerable children even minimum safety, care, and conditions,” the filing reads, noting that on July 28, 2021, the Government Accountability Project “filed a complaint on behalf of career federal civil servants detailed to the Fort Bliss EIS with first-hand knowledge of the conditions and treatment children experience there.”
Per the complaint, “Filth was commonplace. According to one contractor: ‘I’ve been into one [tent], one time, and I was like, yeah, I’m not going back there. They’re filthy. They’re dirty. There’s food on the floor. There are wet spots all over the place. The beds are dirty.”
“The Fort Bliss children did not and could not trust that they were safe, that their basic needs would be met, or that their sponsorship/placement cases were being timely processed,” the filing notes.
It adds: “COVID was widespread among children and eventually spread to many employees. Hundreds of children contracted COVID in overcrowded conditions. Adequate masks were not consistently provided to children, nor was their use consistently enforced. Every effort was made to downplay the degree of COVID infection at the site, and the size of the outbreak was deliberately kept under wraps. Major depression and depressive episodes were commonplace among the children.”
The situation at the facilities was exacerbated on August 4 after 33 members of Congress wrote to express their horror at the allegations brought forward by a whistleblower over sexual misconduct at the Fort Bliss site.
The lawsuit notes: “Audio provided by whistleblowers appears to confirm that adult staff at Ft. Bliss had been caught in sexually inappropriate situations with minors in their care at least as recently as May 2021.”
On August 6, 2021, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (“RAICES”), the ORR-contracted legal services provider for children detained at the Pecos EIS, reported this about conditions children are now experiencing at Pecos:
“The legal teams at RAICES have served tens of thousands of children in ORR care since 2012, but the reports we have received from both attorneys and clients on the conditions at Pecos are the worst we’ve ever observed. . . . Pecos holds almost 1500 unaccompanied migrant children between the ages of thirteen and seventeen and the facility is expected to receive an influx of children as young as six years old in the upcoming days. . . .
[O]ur legal team has witnessed disturbing conditions that put the health and welfare of these children in harm’s way including food-related abdominal pain from undercooked and spoiled food, and children being kept in cage-like rooms for most of the day. In addition, we have had clients who have not received proper medical attention after breaking bones, and know of children who have waited weeks in detention before they were able to speak to their attorney and sponsors.”
A 17-year-old girl from Guatemala who was housed at one of the sites said that the food was raw and that she had no choice but to eat it.
“They did not cook the food well because they were cooking for so many thousands of kids at the emergency shelter … The chicken was raw, everything was raw. I ate it because I had no choice. I got sick from it,” she said.
In a sworn declaration, whistleblower Arthur Pearlstein, a lawyer with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said that the Biden administration is covering up the abuse of “thousands of children.”
Pearlstein alleges that he was “actively discouraged by management at Fort Bliss from reporting [his] concerns.”