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Democrats Confront a Dilemma at the Border

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Last week, a group of lawyers visited a remote Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, that was designed for the temporary detention of about 100 adult migrants. What they found were some 250 children in appalling conditions. Several were sick and in quarantine; others had lice. Very young children had been left in the care of slightly-older children. Although the government is bound by a legal agreement and other regulations to provide “safe and sanitary” conditions for underage migrants and to transfer them out of Border Patrol custody within 72 hours, children told lawyers they had been in the facility for weeks without regular access to beds, showers, toothbrushes, and soap.

The grim dispatch from Clint added to previous reports of worsening conditions in immigration detention facilities. The Border Patrol is currently holding about 15,000 people, nearly four times its capacity, a number that excludes the tens of thousands of people already transferred to ICE custody. In early June, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General reported “immediate risks or egregious violations of detention standards” at multiple facilities, including contaminated food and poor sanitation; a previous IG report found “dangerous overcrowding” at a processing center in El Paso. While concerns about immigration detention centers predate the Trump administration, monitors describe an escalating humanitarian crisis due in part to the sheer number of people being detained and the long length of time they are held in facilities designed for temporary stays. One doctor who recently visited the Ursula Border Patrol processing facility in McAllen, Texas wrote in a medical declaration that the conditions there could be “compared to torture facilities,” and are “tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease.” Since December, at least seven immigrant children have died in federal custody or shortly after being released.

The Trump administration describes the problem largely as an issue of money. The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the shelter system for underage migrants and is charged with finding sponsors to release the children to, claims its facilities are at capacity, causing to children to stay in Border Patrol custody for longer periods of time. “Here is a situation where, because there is not enough funding … they can’t move the people out of our custody,” acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner John Sanders told the Associated Press. Earlier this month the administration announced it was canceling educational and recreational programs and legal aid in shelters due to budget shortfalls at HHS, and requested $2.9 billion to expand its facilities.

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