The Biden administration has vowed to take a compassionate approach to migrants and asylum seekers who are fleeing violence, poverty and persecution, but a damning new investigation reveals the mistreatment of children upon their arrival to the border. The report found more than 80 children in government-funded shelters were turned over to local law enforcement when they engaged in behavior common for kids, especially those who have been through trauma. Many were arrested for fighting, breaking property or mental health crises, and police body-camera footage obtained by Reveal shows at least one child was tasered without warning by a sheriff’s deputy in San Antonio, Texas. “The idea that a child, particularly a refugee child, someone who is fleeing violence and is a minor and has special rights under international law and U.S. law, would then be subjected to arrest for something like fighting … that seems highly unusual,” says Aura Bogado, senior investigative reporter at Reveal.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
The Biden administration has vowed to take a compassionate approach to migrants and asylum seekers who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border after fleeing violence, poverty and persecution. But Vice President Harris drew outrage Monday when she told them, quote, “not to come” during a news conference on her trip to Guatemala to address to root causes of migration. Harris has also come under fire for not yet visiting the U.S.-Mexico border. She was questioned Tuesday by NBC News anchor Lester Holt.
VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: So, this whole — this whole — this whole thing about the border, we’ve been to the border. We’ve been to the border.
LESTER HOLT: You haven’t been to the border.
VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: And I haven’t been to Europe. And, I mean, I don’t — I don’t understand the point that you’re making.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as a damning new investigation by Reveal examines what happens to migrant children who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border and are placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, and held in federally funded shelters.
Reveal found more than 80 children were turned over from these shelters to local law enforcement when they engaged in behavior common for kids, especially those who have been through trauma. Many were arrested for fighting, breaking property, or mental health crises.
In one case, Reveal tracked a boy who left Honduras to seek asylum in the U.S., who was in a shelter in San Antonio, Texas, when staff there called 911 to report he had broken some bins and bed frames. Bodycam footage obtained by Reveal shows a Bexar County sheriff deputy tasering the 16-year-old.
A warning: The video is disturbing, but the boy’s grandmother wants it to be seen, so Reveal published it, and we show part of it to you now. You can hear the deputy speaking English to the boy, who speaks Spanish. The boy is tying the drawstring on his pants when he’s tased for about 35 seconds straight.
DEPUTY PATRICK DIVERS: All right, ready? I’m going to tase this kid.
NARRATION: Divers spoke to the boy in English.
DEPUTY PATRICK DIVERS: Hey, step out of the way. Stand up!
NARRATION: Divers doesn’t tell the boy he’s under arrest.
DEPUTY PATRICK DIVERS: Turn around!
DEPUTY HAROLD SCHNEIDER: Turn around now!
CHILD: Aah! [translated] Stop!
NARRATION: Divers shocks the child for about 35 seconds.
CHILD: [translated] Where are you going to take me? Where are you going to take me? Tell me where you’re taking me!
DEPUTY HAROLD SCHNEIDER: El stupido.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s body-camera footage of a sheriff in San Antonio, Texas, tasering a boy held in a federally funded shelter. The child remains in custody now.
For more, we’re joined by Aura Bogado. She’s senior investigative reporter at Reveal, who has long covered immigration, including the conditions of detained migrant kids. Her new investigation with Laura C. Morel is headlined “’I’m going to tase this kid’: Government shelters are turning refugee children over to police.”
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Aura. Talk about this particular situation, where this boy is held. Supposedly, moving them from Custom and Border Patrol facilities to ORR is supposed to be more humane. But then they bring in the police, and they tase them?
AURA BOGADO: Right. A lot of people within the federal government will usually refer to ICE and Border Patrol as enforcement, and ORR, which really is an agency that should be a household name by now, those are more social workers.
And so, these are children, minors, you know, under the age of 18, who are put in shelters. They’re not accused of any crime, etc. And they’re supposed to be put there, under a federal consent decree, and be taken care of in the least restrictive kind of facility until they can be released without unnecessary delay. We found over and over again that a lot of children are kept beyond a few weeks or beyond a few months and are transferred around for different reasons.
We sued the government for the records regarding, you know, just basic facts about the treatment of children, how long they’re kept inside. We got about 300,000 records last year. And based on that, we started noticing that a lot of children were being discharged to law enforcement. And so we went, you know, locale by locale, and started asking for more records. We got a lot more records.
In this particularly egregious case, we saw, as the audience just saw, that a child was tased soon after shelter staff called 911. And the local sheriffs there, which is the Bexar County sheriffs, you know, one of the deputies deployed a Taser, speaking to the child in English although the child primarily speaks Spanish. And this is a child who’s also fleeing some pretty intense violence in Honduras. He is pretty scared to go back. We were able to confirm his identity and also track down his family. And as you mentioned, they did think that it was important for people here in the United States to see this and to know how some children are treated in custody.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Aura, in this particular case, you were also able to talk to someone — Julie Tamez, I believe — who was listed in the records as the child’s lead case manager. What did she tell you?
AURA BOGADO: Yes, it’s very rare to be able to speak with people who work in shelters that the government — really, that’s part of the operation. And some of that is understandable. You want to be able to protect the rights and privacy of children. But we just — we cold-called the shelter, the number that we had. I was able to speak with her for some while. And she expressed a lot of regret for what happened. She was very sorry. She wanted the family to know that she was sorry for what happened that day.
This was a very sort of different attitude than what we see later on in some of the video, where she’s sort of, you know, going back and forth and talking with the deputies, suggesting that the child may be a hit man, of which we have no evidence of. You know, she told us by phone that she didn’t mean to suggest that he was a killer, but that he had been placed somewhere where sometimes killers are placed. So, it was an interesting disclosure on her end.
But it’s rare to be able to speak with people who work in shelters, and even rarer to be able to see the inside of a shelter and see what these places are like. This isn’t exactly an unannounced visit from a legislator, but actual bodycam footage, and so we were able to sort of see the inside of the kinds of places that we do a lot to get information about and is often described to us either in records or by children who have been there in the past. In this rare case, we were able to sort of see the inside from this bodycam footage.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And some people might say, well, maybe this was a unique case of a law enforcement person gone rogue here. But you were able to find records that there’s been at least 19 police interventions with children. Could you talk about some — whether this is an unusual or outlier case or whether there’s a pattern?
AURA BOGADO: Well, we know that at least 84 children have been turned over from shelters to local law enforcement. We did a lot to try and get records from individual police departments, individual sheriff’s departments, and we were able to get 19 records, including the case of this child.
What we found, over and over and over again, is that children are charged with misdemeanors. We only found one felony charge in everything that we saw. That was a federal, I believe, assault charge — I’m sorry, a felony assault charge. And that was dismissed. So, over and over again, the cases are dismissed.
The idea that a child, particularly a refugee child, someone who is fleeing violence and is a minor and has special rights under international law and U.S. law, would then be subjected to arrest for something like fighting or, in this case, allegedly breaking some plastic bins and some bed frames, that seems highly unusual, I think, to anybody that either has kids or has — we’ve all been kids. You know, a lot of young people fight. That is not necessarily unusual for any population. And so, we see that while this may be really egregious in terms of the level of force that was used, these arrests themselves are not that uncommon.
And again, this is an agency that is funding these shelters with our money, with taxpayer money. And we can see that some of the treatment results in being handed over to a different agency, which is not a federal agency but a local law enforcement agency. Often kids are just sent back into the system, into a different shelter. But, unfortunately, this kind of arrest, even for a misdemeanor, breaking a plastic bin, can result in a negative effect on an individual immigration case.
AMY GOODMAN: And very briefly — I mean, this happened before the Biden administration came in. But you requested information from Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. ORR is run by HHS. He didn’t respond to your media requests. Can you talk about, for example, what happens with this boy and other kids? They can be moved from one of these shelters to another, and then, ultimately, when they age out, they’re deported?
AURA BOGADO: Yeah. You know, children are in this agency, as you said, until the age of 18. They then become adults and are often taken by ICE and put into adult detention and deported afterwards.
We did try, over and over and over again, to get not only comment from the department and from Secretary Becerra, but we also repeatedly said we were willing to share the video ahead of publication. This goes back to some while. And over and over again, the agency either stonewalled us or told us that they won’t comment because they don’t comment about anything to do with anonymous allegations.
Our investigation is not based on anonymous allegations. Our investigation is based on data from that very department, that we unfortunately had to litigate for, under federal information Records Act. And then the local information that we received was also legitimately obtained from individual law enforcement. There’s nothing anonymous here. These aren’t allegations.
We think also that the video speaks for itself, and there is a strong public interest in knowing what happened. And as a reporter, I feel that there is a strong public interest in this agency and Secretary Becerra responding for what happened here.
AMY GOODMAN: Aura Bogado, we want to thank you for being with us, senior investigative reporter at Reveal, co-author of the new article, which we’ll link to at democracynow.org, “’I’m going to tase this kid’: Government shelters are turning refugee children over to police.” Oh, and congratulations, Aura, for recently winning the Hillman Prize for web journalism.
Coming up, Takeover. A new documentary looks at how the Young Lords took over a hospital in the South Bronx in 1970. We’ll also talk about the key role of our own co-host, Juan González. Stay with us.