The Department of Homeland Security has moved 100 migrant children back to a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, where infants and toddlers have been locked up without adequate food, water, sanitation or medical care, with older children having to care for the younger ones. Around 300 kids were removed from the facility Monday following widespread outrage over the reports, but Customs and Border Protection said some of the children are being sent back, claiming that the facility is no longer overcrowded. Lawyers who recently visited the facility described a scene of chaos and sickness, with children unable to shower or change into clean clothes for weeks on end. We speak with Clara Long, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. She was part of the monitoring team that visited Border Patrol facilities last week, including Clint.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the Department of Homeland Security has moved 100 migrant children back to a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, where children of all ages have been locked up without adequate food, water, sanitation or medical care, with older children being left to care for the younger ones. Around 300 children were removed from the facility Monday following widespread outrage over the reports, but Customs and Border Protection said some of the children are being sent back, claiming that the facility is no longer overcrowded. Lawyers who recently visited the facility described a scene of chaos and sickness, with children unable to shower or change into clean clothes for weeks on end.
Meanwhile, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, John Sanders, has announced that he is resigning in July, just two months after taking the job. Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Mark Morgan is set to replace Sanders. Morgan is an immigration hard-liner who has been criticized for his past comments. This is Morgan appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News in January.
MARK MORGAN: I know this may be controversial, but when the president referred to them as animals, I absolutely said that is correct. Those MS-13 members. And I can tell you, again, because I’ve worked at and I’ve been there as a chief, I’ve been to the detention facilities, where I’ve walked up to these individuals that are so-called minors, 17 or under, and I’ve looked at them, and I’ve looked at their eyes, Tucker, and I said, “That is a soon-to-be MS-13 gang member.”
AMY GOODMAN: That is Mark Morgan, who has now been moved from being head of acting head of ICE to acting head of CBP. That’s Customs and Border Protection. He also reportedly was pushing for the raids on families around the country this weekend, that was announced by ICE but then canceled, at least for now.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Clara Long, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. She was part of the monitoring team that visited Border Patrol facilities last week, including Clint, where she interviewed migrant children held without their family members. She co-authored an article for CNN headlined “We went to a border detention center for children. What we saw was awful.”
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Clara. Describe what you saw at Clint, where now a hundred kids are being sent back in, after the government said they took out 300.
CLARA LONG: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Amy.
You know, I was there as part of a team of lawyers and doctors who volunteered to monitor these facilities on behalf of the Flores settlement, which is a decades-old legal settlement between the government and lawyers for children who are detained by immigration enforcement. And as part of that settlement, we don’t actually have access to the locations, such as the facility where—you know, to the whole facility where children are being detained. What we can do is speak to them. Because they’re class members, basically they are clients.
And so, we were sort of placed in this anodyne interview room and given a roster of children who were in the facility. And when we got there on Monday, we got this roster, and it showed that there were over 350 children in the facility, from zero to 17 years old. And so we said, OK, we’re just going to start calling the youngest kids. We’re going to start calling the kids who—you know, the young parents. There were some young mothers there with infants. And we’re going to start—we’re going to try to talk to the kids who it appears, based on this list, may have been here for the longest.
And when the kids came into the interview rooms where we were sitting, one of the things we noticed was that we—you know, we were calling kids who were listed as being 2 or 3 years old, and they were indeed alone in the facility. They would come into the interview room, usually together with a somewhat older kid, and the agent would say, “Oh, this kid is taking care of that other kid.” And indeed, what the kid said was, you know, if you talk to the older kid—often these toddlers were preverbal—”Oh, yeah, I’ve been taking care of this toddler, you know, because there’s no one else to do it, and they’re in my cell with me. So, you know, I’ve been changing their diapers, giving them food, making sure they’re OK.” And that was sort of how those interviews went.
We ended up understanding from the kids that many had been there for weeks. And, you know, the kid who had been there the longest, who we spoke with, had been there for 26 days. And that’s staying in these conditions that are really inappropriate for anyone for that amount of time, much less for a child. They hadn’t been able to change their clothes, for the most part. If they had gotten a shower or bath, it was on the level of, say, once a week. Same thing with toothbrushes. In fact, they would say, you know, “We were allowed to brush our teeth, say, once a week, but then they told us we had to throw away the toothbrushes, because you can’t have them in the cell because they’re contraband.” So they wouldn’t let them sort of take that kind of item back into these jail cells. A lot of them said, you know, there are some beds, there are some mattresses, but people do—you know, kids do also have to sleep on the floor, because there are just not enough. That’s the facility that after we decided that it was so urgent, we had to speak out.
Oh, let me say, just quickly, you know, the other thing that really concerned us, from the perspective of urgency, was that many of the kids we called were visibly sick, runny noses. Some of the younger kids had mucus-stained clothing. And then, many of the kids we had asked to speak with, they said, “No, you can’t speak with that child because they’re in quarantine.” We said, “We’ll go to the quarantine room. No problem. We’ll send some team members to the quarantine room and have them immediately leave the facility, if you’re worried about us spreading infectious diseases.” They said no. They never gave us access to these quarantine rooms. And we called a significant number of kids, almost, I believe, 10 kids, at least, who they said we couldn’t see because they were in quarantine.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now—
CLARA LONG: So, taken together, that made us—go ahead. Sorry.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, Clara, now, I wanted to ask you, first of all, in terms of—how were you able to gain admission? Was this part of the now—for President Trump, at least, the notorious Flores decision? Could you talk about how you got in? And also, who are the personnel here? Are these government employees, or are these private contractors working for the government at this facility?
CLARA LONG: Yeah. So, the way that we got in is through this now-notorious-for-President-Trump Flores settlement agreement, which gives access to the attorneys for the plaintiffs, who are all children detained by immigration enforcement, by Customs and Border Protection. You know, back in a day, it was INS, so it’s all of the agencies that took over from INS, including, of course, also Health and Human Services, which runs the big Office of Refugee Resettlement detention centers and shelters for children.
So, Flores counsel has access to all of these—to speak with children who are detained in all of these facilities. Where the facilities are licensed for child care—this is sort of counterintuitive—the Flores counsel has access to inspect the facility as a whole. Where it’s not licensed for child care, as in the case of the Border Patrol stations, Flores counsel does not have access to inspect the facility as a whole, but we can speak with the children who are detained there.
Outside of this settlement, there are really very few, if not no, ways for outsiders, attorneys, inspectors, others to enter into these Border Patrol stations, where we did these visits last week, and another team the week before, in Texas. And, you know, they’re closed to attorneys. They’re closed to visitors. They’re just very, very closed facilities. They are run directly by the U.S. Border Patrol, which is part of, of course, Customs and Border Protection—when you played that clip a few minutes earlier of now the acting commissioner, Mark Morgan, saying some pretty shocking and angering things. So, that’s sort of—
AMY GOODMAN: So, Clara Long, can you describe the bracelets that some of these children wore, how you realized that, in fact, the government has access to reaching their parents but aren’t calling them?
CLARA LONG: Yeah. At one point, I had, you know, this really quiet second-grader who came into the interview room, and she sort of sat—you know, she came in, and she sat on this big office chair. And she was like grabbing the sides of the chair, and she was like sort of bracing herself. And I asked her one question. You know, I said, “Hello.” You know, I invited her to speak, and asked if she wanted to speak. And she said, “OK.” And I said, you know, “Who did you cross the border with?” And she said, “My aunt.” And then she just started crying so hard that she couldn’t produce words.
And, you know, I’m trying to calm her down, rubbing her back and looking and seeing that she had a bracelet on with the words, in U.S. permanent—sorry, in permanent marker, the words “U.S. parent” and a phone number. You know, someone had taken the time to write that down, I guess, when they separated her from her adult relative, her custodian, with whom she crossed the border.
So, you know, at that point—there’s this sense that you’re not allowed to use your phone in the facilities, but at that point I and other members of our team just decided, “You know, screw that. We’re going to start making phone calls.” So, picked up my phone and dialed the number and connected with her father. And he had no idea where she was being held. And, you know, they were able to speak. And after that, she was able to sort of ask for more phone calls, because she realized that phone calls might be a possibility. That was some of the—
AMY GOODMAN: How many of these kids had bracelets that had their parents’ phone numbers written directly on them?
CLARA LONG: She was the only one who I saw with a bracelet with the parents’ phone number. But there were so many kids who do have parents in the United States. I mean, another group of brothers who I spoke with had traveled with an older sibling to the U.S., a 19-year-old sister. And the sister was the one who had the parents’ contact information. But they separated these kids from their adult sister so suddenly at the border that they were left with none of their parents’ contact information. And they were distraught. They felt like they would never—maybe never connect with their parents again. And so, for them, you know, I was able to hook up my phone on a hotspot and went on Facebook and sent a bunch of messages to the people—you know, the profiles they identified as their father and their aunt. And someone got back to me, and we were able to get the number and give their dad a call and send them, you know, back to their cells—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Clara—
CLARA LONG: —at least with a paper that had the number.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And where are these—when the children leave that facility, where do they get sent?
CLARA LONG: So, the children who are leaving that facility are going to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is under a different agency, the Health and Human Services agency. And they’re going into what is now an extremely bloated set of detention centers and shelters. That’s the custody that’s being considered, for example, at Fort Sill. These sort of large detention centers are the new norm, really, under the Trump administration, like the one in Homestead, Florida, being run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
I’ve been doing visits in those facilities, as well. And, you know, the real problems that we’re seeing there have to do with extremely extended lengths of stay, especially under the Trump administration. They’ve really slowed down the process to reunify children with family members in the United States. And a lot of that has to do with the administration’s desire and policy to use the information of people who come forward to take care of children and get them out of these detention centers, for immigration enforcement purposes, so to arrest, detain and deport the people who come forward to take care of them.
AMY GOODMAN: When we were talking to Warren Binford, one of the attorneys who was in the center like you were—and, I mean, is it fair just to call it a “child jail”?
CLARA LONG: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Are words like “detention facility” simply euphemisms?
CLARA LONG: I would call—in particular, the Border Patrol stations are jails. That is jail. There’s no—
AMY GOODMAN: So, when you were in—
CLARA LONG: There’s no mincing words.
AMY GOODMAN: When you were in this child jail, where over 300 children were being held, children taking care of younger children, often that they did not even know, a guard handing an 8-year-old a 2-year-old baby who was sick, and saying, “Take care of the baby”—Warren Binford described the stories of the lice combs being given to kids and told to hand them around, a child with matted hair who wasn’t given a shower. Warren Binford talked about the possibility of death in these facilities.
CLARA LONG: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we’ve seen one child after another dying in U.S. government custody along the border. Do you share the same assessment, Clara?
CLARA LONG: Of course. I mean, we push to request and schedule and go on these visits because of the steady rate of child deaths along the border in these border jails. And after going there and talking to these kids, it’s very easy to see why those conditions can easily become life-threatening, particularly because of the infectious disease risks, the lack of hygiene, and the fact that when people—when children are coming down with the flu or getting sick, the care plan appears to be to put them in a quarantine cell alone with no real child care. I mean, it sounds like someone’s coming in twice a day to give some medication, but no one is really taking care of them. And so, it’s very easy to see why those conditions are giving rise to death after death after death.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Clara Long, I want to thank you for being with us, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, part of the monitoring team that visited the child jail at Clint, Texas, where now a hundred more children have been sent in, after the government said they removed 300, held without their family members, their parents.