Children Remain in Dangerous Conditions on the Texas Border
On Monday, after reports that hundreds of children were being held in horrific conditions at a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, the federal government announced that most of the children were being transferred to shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. Then, on Tuesday, the government partially reversed course, saying that approximately a hundred of the children had been returned to the Border Patrol facility, and that the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, John Sanders, would step down in the coming weeks. There are still hundreds of other children in Border Patrol facilities across Texas. Many of them have been separated from family members, and some of them have been held there for weeks. In response to their plight, Democrats in Congress are urgently trying to pass a four-and-a-half-billion-dollar border-aid package. But some progressives, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, oppose the bill, saying there are not enough measures to prevent the Trump Administration from using the money for immigration enforcement.
To discuss the crisis over children in Border Patrol custody, I spoke by phone with Jonathan Ryan, the C.E.O. and president of RAICES, a Texas-based nonprofit that provides legal counsel to immigrants. Shortly after we spoke, Sanders’s resignation and the reversal at the Clint facility were announced, so I called Ryan back to ask several more questions. During our conversations, which have been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the most important problems facing detained children, why Trump’s policies are less of an aberration than we might think, and how solutions might be found outside Congress.
What do you know about the places that the children in the Clint facility were moved to?
I have no idea where they were moved to. All we know is what was reported—that they went to Health and Human Services. Where they could be in that system is anybody’s guess at this point.
What is the larger meaning of moving them to H.H.S.?
When anybody comes to the border, either presenting themselves at a port of entry or crossing land or water, they are apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol. And the Flores Settlement of 1997 requires that the Border Patrol, within forty-eight hours of apprehension, determines whether an individual in its care is an unaccompanied child. Once Border Patrol makes that determination, it has seventy-two hours under the Flores Settlement to transfer that child to H.H.S. That is one of the crucial laws in Flores. It is ubiquitously the case that children who are in H.H.S. custody arrived from the Border Patrol. There are cases of children who were apprehended internally; that certainly occurs, but it is a very small number of kids.
But that is pretty much the process. The Border Patrol is mandated under the law to get children who are apprehended to H.H.S. custody as quickly as possible, because Flores requires that children be in licensed childcare facilities, and Border Patrol facilities are not, and neither are ICE detention centers. The problem here was first the deplorable conditions at the Clint facility, which are indicative of the conditions that we hear about in all border facilities, and second the length of time that these children languished in Border Patrol custody rather than being swiftly transferred into H.H.S. custody.
What is currently the most urgent matter regarding detained children?
I think one, given the deaths of children and deplorable conditions that are being found out, children have to be out of Border Patrol custody, or, if possible, never in Border Patrol custody to begin with. Clearly, they are incapable of providing suitable conditions at any time for any children. And the other most important thing is that, conditions aside, children have to have access to critical life-saving services, such as representation. You could put them in the Ritz-Carlton, but we are still spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per child in an effort to send them back to the country that they fled.
The focus on conditions is important. I don’t want to discount it. But to solely focus on conditions is to neglect the fact that these are not children in Child Protective Services custody. In that case, the child’s parent is the subject of a judicial proceeding. In this case, the child is the defendant in a case where they are fighting for their lives. And no matter how fancy the cell is that they are held in, that is an inescapable reality, and they need protection from that, too.
What is your organization doing on the ground right now?
RAICES operates at almost every point of injustice in our immigration system. We work inside the so-called family-detention centers. We are one of the largest legal-service providers to unaccompanied children within H.H.S. detention centers. We work with local communities across the state of Texas that have been living a waking nightmare over the past week as a result of the threats of raids. We work with people who have been detained after they get out at the San Antonio bus station—our staff and volunteers work with hundreds of women and children per week, getting them out of detention and moving forward to be with their families. We pay bonds for people in immigration detention. Since last summer, we have spent more than four million dollars in immigration bonds. We have been continuing to assist the survivors of the zero-tolerance family-separation policy of last summer to get legal representation today, when they have been released and are living in different parts of the country. We are the largest immigration-law office in the state of Texas. We are on the front lines of every place we can get.
One thing that is notable is that one area where lawyers are specifically not allowed, nor are journalists, is inside the Border Patrol facilities. And that is where those children were found in Clint, Texas. That’s where these underpass and tent cages and cities are. And that is the one place where they don’t let lawyers. [Lawyers who spoke to the press about the conditions in Clint had entered the facility to monitor adherence to the Flores agreement, as part of an ongoing court case.]
How much evidence do you have that some of the worst things we are seeing are intentional, due to either a desire for deterrence or cruelty? Or is this more about the system being overwhelmed?
I have been hearing stories about the hielera, or ice box. This is what people call cold cells with concrete floors, or the mobile-mini [detention sites] that are littered around the hinterlands of south and central Texas. I have been hearing clients talking to me about these since I started doing this work, in 2003. And I spoke with young African men in their twenties, ten years ago. I have spoken with young Central-American children this year. And across geography, across age, across language, I have heard consistent stories about mistreatment and abuse inside of Customs and Border Protection custody. You hear about the refrigerated boxes people get shoved in. You hear about the separations of people from their children. You hear about manhandlings and rough treatment, unnecessary body-checking, shoving, pushing, hitting. You hear about cruel and abusive language: “Welcome to hell”; “If you think this is bad, wait until what you have in store for you next”; “You have no rights”; “If you ask for asylum, we will keep you here forever.”
And you cannot hear about this again and again and again, over years, and think it is an aberration from training. No, this is the training that the officers are receiving. And it has not changed in nature. We have seen this evil for many years, but it has increased dramatically in scale because of the explosion of funding over the past ten, fifteen years. It has increased in efficiency because of the collusion between the government and Big Tech, who are the backbone of ICE and Border Patrol, making their sinister acts more efficient. And it has increased in severity because we have a Commander-in-Chief who is telegraphing to all of these officers from the top down that he wants to see the cruelty, that he wants them to make people’s head hit the top of the car door.
What did you mean about Big Tech?
A.W.S. [Amazon Web Services], Salesforce, Palantir, Dell, Microsoft—this is how ICE operates, through services and products from all of these big tech companies. Hewlett Packard operates the network-operating center for ICE.
You have alluded to this, but should we think about what has gone on in the past couple of years as a break from past norms?
In terms of mistreatment, politically speaking, there is no good guy in this debate. Immigrants and their rights have been forsaken by both parties. And the truth is that Mr. Trump could not be doing what he is doing now without the infrastructure that was laid down by previous Presidents of both parties.
There has been a debate among Democrats in Congress about aid for the crisis at the border, with some in the party fearing that it will only be used to help the Trump Administration carry out its agenda, and that any requirements placed on the Administration will be ignored. Where do you come down in this debate?
I don’t gamble at the political table, but I can comment as an immigrant. RAICES has been doing this work for over thirty years. I was born in Canada. My folks were Irish immigrants. I have been doing this work for fifteen years. We in the immigrant community have been consistently disappointed by both political parties. I don’t have great expectations that politicians are going to resolve this, and my expectations in the current situation are low. We don’t have a lot of heroes.
I know where you are trying to go. But what I would say is that we have the President we have. We have the Senate that we have. We have the Congress we have. And I think it is pretty apparent the way things are going to roll out here.
O.K., but step away from specific parties or specific bills. There is a debate about whether Congress should give more aid to facilities at the border, with some people saying it is really needed, and other people saying that the Administration will use it to carry out its agenda and won’t follow any conditions placed on this aid. I am curious how you think about that dilemma. It seems like a complicated one.
It is only complicated if you accept the premise that the only choice should be abdicating our responsibility to provide essential life-saving services, and creating a penal system that punishes vulnerable refugees for asking for asylum. We are being presented with a false choice.
What is the choice?
It is either you withhold funds from children who desperately need them, or you provide funds that will be used to create more cages, more concentration camps, more deaths of children at the border. The fact that you have to accept both in order to get the care to the people who need it is simply a false choice.
You are the person who just said that we have the President we have and the Senate we have. It is a false choice, but that doesn’t make it any easier if you are a representative in Congress who cares about kids and is faced with the President we have.
Well, this is where the responsibility falls back on we the people. We have seen the American people up in arms and demonstrating and filling parks and streets and sidewalks demonstrating against family separation. What we have now are children dying in these cages. We need to have that mobilization of people against this that pushes lawmakers of both parties to provide the funding to the children without creating more systems of oppression and torture and death. It absolutely needs to be demanded full-throatedly and clearly by the people.
[After the announcement that children were being returned to the Border Patrol facility in Clint, I spoke to Ryan again.]
Can you understand why they would move kids back to Clint?
It’s incomprehensible, given the heightened attention on this issue alone. But it’s despicable, considering the treatment the kids underwent in that facility, that any child is being allowed to be in there at all.
Is there some sort of legal remedy, given that they are supposed to be transferred to H.H.S.?
They are in violation of the Flores settlement, and so the very people who went to monitor the Clint facility as part of the Flores team hold the keys to enforcement of that agreement.
Again, what’s insulting on top of being injurious is that all of this is behavior by the government when it knows people are watching. They knew the inspectors were coming to Clint. They know that the world is watching, and yet they do this anyway. Just imagine what happens in the dark, and out of the view of the public. That’s why we have to have lawyers there; that’s why reporters have to talk about this. If not, you only have to allow your imagination to run wild to envision what could happen and what, in fact, is happening.