Illegal immigrant children are being traumatized by the government’s emergency border shelters, which are spurring some to try to escape and pushing others toward suicidal tendencies, according to court documents filed this week that paint the worst picture yet of conditions the Biden administration is overseeing.
Children held for weeks on end with no information about their status or cases felt “intense psychological distress,” and some have resorted to violence or tried to break out of the shelters, attorneys for the children told Judge Dolly M. Gee.
Add to that a lack of clean clothes, being trapped inside a tent for 22 hours a day and no respite from the staff’s prying eyes, and children said it’s unlike anything they could have imagined.
“It was terrible. I felt anguished and hopeless. I was held hostage, and I couldn’t do anything about it,” a 16-year-old from Honduras said in the filings.
That child also said the daily meal of chicken was served “bloody and raw.”
“They served the same meal every single day. I did not like eating it. Honestly, there were days that I’d starve,” the child said.
The accusations are the latest to be lodged against tent cities set up at Fort Bliss and Pecos, both in Texas, to hold the massive surge of illegal immigrant children that has beset the Biden administration.
But this set of complaints, part of a decades-old class-action lawsuit, has teeth. Attorneys are asking Judge Gee to step in and empty the shelters as quickly as possible.
They have asked Judge Gee in court filings to declare the facilities unfit for any children 12 and younger and for older minors with particular needs such as pregnant teens, those who have autism and those facing mental health issues.
The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that it couldn’t address the specific issues raised in court but added that it takes the role of guardianship of the children seriously.
The department said it has improved its offerings, with opportunities for art and recreation, and better legal services and case management so children have a better sense of where they stand, what their prospects are and when they might be released to sponsors.
“Children at both sites have access to medical treatment, laundry service, they can call their family, they meet weekly with case managers, can access legal services and meet with mental and behavioral health counselors,” the department said.
That was not the case for many of the children, whose testimony is included in the new filings.
“We mostly slept all day. The shelter was not equipped for anything,” a 17-year-old Guatemalan child said. During 15 days at Fort Bliss, the child was taken outside once, for an hour, to play soccer.
That child was allowed to shower and had clean clothes and bedsheets, but other children reported lacking those resources.
Ryan Matlow, a clinical psychologist and Stanford University professor who has been tracking the children’s conditions, warned of “severe mental health decline” for those forced into detention.
He said to expect acts of “self-harm” or escape attempts from children who feel hopeless over confinement in those conditions.
“The general experiences and treatment of children at Fort Bliss are not consistent with principles and practices of trauma-informed care,” he said.
Problems at the emergency shelters are well known to HHS and the Biden administration.
When Vice President Kamala Harris made a brief trip to the border region in late June, her office said she and President Biden had ordered HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra to investigate the reports of abusive conditions.
Mr. Becerra visited the Fort Bliss facility days later but deflected questions about any investigation. He said the trip was a chance to celebrate progress in reducing the population at the facility.
The status of the investigation that the president and vice president ordered is not clear.
Juveniles who jump the border without the presence of a parent are among the toughest cases in the immigration debate.
Under U.S. policy, they are supposed to be transferred within 72 hours out of the Department of Homeland Security’s custody and turned over to HHS.
Children began surging at the border during the Obama years. The number spiked again in 2019 before cooling until Mr. Biden took office. The new administration changed a COVID-19 policy to allow the children to remain in the U.S., sparking the largest surge in history.
More than 18,000 unaccompanied children were nabbed in March, nearly 17,000 in April, nearly 14,000 in May, more than 15,000 in June and, reportedly, more than 19,000 in July — a new monthly record.
HHS had more than 15,000 children in its shelters and homes as of early this week, and the Border Patrol is apprehending more than 550 children every day.
At the same time, HHS has been pumping the children out of the shelters at a startling pace of more than 450 a day over the past week.