At an emergency shelter in the Texas desert, migrant teens are housed in long, wide caravans, with little space for recreation and not much to do during the hot summer days, according to lawyers and other advocates for the children who have visited them there.
Some children say they can wait more than a month before meeting someone who can help them connect with a relative or other sponsor in the United States. Some report episodes of food poisoning and say they should wash their clothes in a bathroom sink.
In one case, two siblings at the shelter, a former oil worker camp in Pecos, Texas, received several government case managers. A sibling was reunited with their mother. The other was left in the shelter and is staying there, according to a lawyer who visited the shelter.
The living conditions of migrant children who arrive unaccompanied in the United States and are taken into custody appear to have improved since early spring, when images of them crammed into customs and border security facilities met criticism from around the world.
But reports of people able to visit emergency shelters — where the children are sent awaiting the chance to be released to relatives, friends or better-equipped state facilities — suggest that the Biden administration and the private contractors hired to run the facilities are still struggling to provide consistently good care for the children.
The Pecos shelter, which houses about 800 teenagers, is one of four remaining of more than a dozen the Biden government set up this spring to deal with the extraordinary number of migrant children arriving alone at the border with Mexico.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the shelters, just extended the Pecos contract to keep the facility open at least until November, and is considering plans to house younger children there as well, according to federal contract data.
The department’s internal watchdog opened an investigation this week into reports of substandard conditions and care at another of the surviving emergency facilities, the large shelter at Fort Bliss military base in El Paso. More than half of the thousands of migrant children currently in emergency shelters are being held in Pecos and Fort Bliss, according to internal data obtained by NewsMadura.
The department has not responded to questions about the Pecos shelter. Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services, visited the shelter at Fort Bliss in late June and said conditions had improved.
The government has largely shut down oversight of emergency shelters, citing the pandemic and the privacy of the children, many of whom fled violence and poverty in their own countries to come to the United States. But some lawyers and others who work to give the children access to the facilities, and their descriptions of the circumstances help to understand what life is like there.
Jonathan Ryan, an attorney at Raices, a Texas nonprofit that provides free legal services to migrants, said in a statement to The Times that the children he met felt “locked up, distressed and as if they were being punished.”
Another lawyer said the government had focused on moving the children out of border facilities and into emergency shelters that were quickly set up to house them. But it hadn’t acted with the same sense of urgency to get the children out of emergency shelters.
The shelters were built as temporary spaces where young migrants could be cared for after an often traumatic journey and their initial detention by customs and border guards. But the average stay in the shelter is more than a month.
“It’s all about preventing” backing up children in border station facilities, where they are supposed to be held for only up to 72 hours, said Leecia Welch, an attorney and the senior director of the legal advocacy and child welfare practice at the National Center. for juvenile justice. “Nobody seems to care much about the unsafe conditions we let the children live in for months.”
Under a 1997 settlement order known as the Flores case, Ms. Welch and her colleagues are inspecting facilities where children are held to verify government compliance with the agreement, which guarantees protection for migrant children held in government custody. Her organization visited the Pecos shelter in June and July.
The Department of Health and Human Services has responded to early concerns expressed by lawyers and lawmakers about the shelters. It closed two shelters not long after they opened in April due to alarming circumstances. And after concerns were raised about space at Fort Bliss, the department began to limit the number of children sent there.
The Biden administration has also succeeded in placing more children in government-licensed shelters where the standards of care are typically much better than what the emergency shelters provide.
As of August 4, there were just over 4,300 children in emergency shelters and about 10,100 in shelters with higher standards of care, according to government figures. As of May 4, there were more than 13,000 children in emergency shelters and about 9,000 in shelters with better care.
In June, the Biden administration began offering Covid-19 vaccinations to consenting children aged 12 and older, a spokeswoman said. And it more than doubled the number of case managers — a child’s ticket to being reunited with a family member or placed with another sponsor in the United States — earlier this spring.
But even an official with the health and human services agency that oversees the care admitted to a federal judge in June that there weren’t enough case managers to expedite the safe release of the children. Children should meet with a case manager once a week, the department said.
Alberto, a 17-year-old from Guatemala, said he spent a month at the Pecos shelter before meeting a case manager. (Alberto is his middle name, which The Times wanted to use to protect his anonymity.)
In a recent interview hosted by Raices, which provides him with legal services, Alberto described spending most of the 40 days locked up at Pecos in his twin room. He said he couldn’t leave alone. Employees took him out for meals, modest recreation, English lessons and a five-minute phone call every eight days with his aunt, whom he planned to live with upon his arrival in the United States.
He said he felt like he was in a “cage”, a word used in the past to describe the conditions of the border guard posts when they were overcrowded with migrant children.
When Alberto arrived in the United States on May 30, he spent a day in a border facility, a period well below the legal maximum of 72 hours. He said the officers there were nicer to him than the Pecos employees — a Border Patrol agent gave him apples, he said.
At Pecos, he said, he kept track of the days by watching television in his room. He saw roommates rotating back and forth, because they were united with relatives or other sponsors. Not everyone at the shelter had to be locked up in their rooms, he said, adding, “They didn’t treat everyone the same.”
Some days, he said, he felt sad and cried and regretted leaving Guatemala, where he said he feared for his life for resisting recruitment by criminal gangs.
“It didn’t look like there was going to be an exit, and I felt very desperate,” he said.
This was also the case for others at the Pecos shelter, said Mr. Ryan in his statement. Most, he said, were concerned about their case and the lack of communication with officials about when they might leave.
Mr Ryan said he had worked with migrant children for more than a decade, mainly those detained in Texas, and visited most of the detention centers and immigration and customs enforcement centers operated by the Health and Human Service Department in the state.
Conditions at the Pecos shelter, he said, are among the “strictest and most restrictive” shelters he has visited.
The previous two administrations also faced these challenges in 2014 and again in 2019 when similar criticisms were leveled. But when the number of children arriving alone at the southern border doubled between February and March this year, Mr. Biden’s team was caught without enough places to house them properly, in part because of Trump-era budget cuts and the pandemic. driven public health restrictions.
Government officials have pledged to provide the best possible care for the children, saying the goal was to get the children out of federal custody as soon as possible and placed safely with a sponsor.
“And now we’re kind of waiting for them” to deliver on that promise, said Wendy Young, the president of the children’s advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense.