migrant crisis

Everything We Know About the Inhumane Conditions at Migrant Detention Camps

A Central American migrant family recently released from federal detention waits to board a bus in McAllen, Texas, on June 12. Photo: LOREN ELLIOTT/AFP/Getty Images

The third week in June began with a broad political discussion on whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s designation of migrant detention centers as “concentration camps” was the correct nomenclature for holding rooms in which 41 detainees live in a cell built for eight. It ended with heinous reports of the conditions at said camps, where undocumented migrant children are being held away from their families in conditions “worse than jail,” according to physician Dolly Lucio Sevier, who wrote up a medical declaration obtained by ABC News after visiting Border Patrol holding facilities along the border in Texas. Here’s everything we’ve learned about conditions in the detention camps in recent weeks.

Conditions in a McAllen, Texas Facility “Could Be Compared to Torture Facilities”

Sevier, a private-practice physician in the Rio Grande Valley, was granted access to a facility in McAllen, Texas in mid-June, after attorneys discovered a flu outbreak that sent five infants to a neonatal intensive-care unit. At the detention center — the largest such Border Patrol facility in the country — Sevier examined 39 children under the age of 18 facing conditions including “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.” All 39 exhibited signs of trauma.

Sevier told ABC News that the teenagers she observed were not able to wash their hands while in custody, which she called “tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease.” Teen mothers in custody told her they were not able to clean their children’s bottles: “To deny parents the ability to wash their infant’s bottles is unconscionable and could be considered intentional mental and emotional abuse,” Sevier wrote. In summary, she determined that “the conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities.”

Children “Had to Sleep on the Floor … as Punishment for Losing the Comb”

In mid-June, attorney and children’s-rights advocate Warren Binford gained access to a Clint, Texas Border Patrol facility where 351 migrant children were detained; over 100 were under 13, and the youngest was just over 4 months. Binford reported that many of the kids had been held for three weeks or longer, and that guards had created a “child boss” who was rationed extra food in an attempt to control the other children. Binford described the Clint facility’s treatment of a lice outbreak to The New Yorker:

So, on Wednesday, we received reports from children of a lice outbreak in one of the cells where there were about twenty-five children, and what they told us is that six of the children were found to have lice. And so they were given a lice shampoo, and the other children were given two combs and told to share those two combs, two lice combs, and brush their hair with the same combs, which is something you never do with a lice outbreak. And then what happened was one of the combs was lost, and Border Patrol agents got so mad that they took away the children’s blankets and mats. They weren’t allowed to sleep on the beds, and they had to sleep on the floor on Wednesday night as punishment for losing the comb. So you had a whole cell full of kids who had beds and mats at one point, not for everybody but for most of them, who were forced to sleep on the cement.

Speaking with ABC News, Binford also described a devastating example of a 2-year-old without diapers who had “several other little girls” looking after him. “When I asked where his diapers were, she looked down and said, ‘He doesn’t need them,’ and then he immediately peed in his pants right there on the conference chair and started crying,” Binford said. “So children are being required to care for other very young children, and they are simply not prepared to do that.”

Almost 300 Children Were Removed From the Clint Facility, But a Third Were Brought Back

After reports of the appalling conditions at the detention center outside of El Paso, close to 300 children were removed on June 24, according to the Department of Homeland Security. NBC News reported that some of the children who were removed “were wearing dirty clothes covered in mucus or even urine, said Elora Mukherjee, the director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School. Teenage mothers wore clothing stained with breast milk. None of the children had access to soap or toothpaste.”

The next day, June 25, 100 of the detained children were brought back to the Clint detention center.

Protests at Fort Sill, Site of a Former Japanese Internment Camp

As New York’s Eric Levitz wrote regarding the debate over whether to use the term concentration camps for migrant detention facilities: “Progressives shouldn’t need to invoke the Holocaust to place migrant-detention centers in their proper context. The border separating the United States from lands dominated by nonwhite peoples has been a site of white-nationalist violence since the founding of our republic.” Indeed, reports emerged earlier in June that the Office of Refugee Resettlement planned to hold 1,400 migrant children at the Fort Sill Army Base in Oklahoma, the site of an internment camp for around 700 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

On June 22, around 200 protesters and survivors of the internment camps protested the use of Fort Sill to detain migrant children. (In 2014, there were also protests over the detention of children at the site.) “We are here to say, ‘Stop repeating history,’ ” said 75-year-old Satsuki Ina, who was detained at the Fort Sill tent city as a child during WWII.

Politicians Visit the Border Patrol Facilities

Over the last weekend in June, Democratic 2020 hopefuls including Beto O’Rourke, Kirsten Gillibrand, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and Julián Castro visited camps along the border, with several other Democratic representatives appearing on Monday:

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited a facility on July 1, and also reported that migrants were directed to drink from toilets if they wanted water.

Anna Giaritelli — the reporter for the Washington Examiner who promoted the unsubstantiated story about “prayer rugs” found at the border — claimed that “Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., screamed at federal law enforcement agents ‘in a threatening manner’ during a visit to a U.S. Border Patrol facility in El Paso, Texas, Monday afternoon and refused to tour the facility, according to two people who witnessed it.” Later, Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director provided a different angle to the exchange:

The Border Patrol Facebook Group

As CBP officers dealt with the increased attention brought by the lawmakers at the border, the agency scrambled to cover an online crisis, after a ProPublica report of a 9,500-member Facebook group where current and former Border Patrol agents “joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility in Texas on Monday and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant.”

In one exchange, group members responded with indifference and wisecracks to the post of a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant who died in May while in custody at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas. One member posted a GIF of Elmo with the quote, “Oh well.” Another responded with an image and the words “If he dies, he dies.”

In another thread, a group member posted a photo of father and his 23-month-old daughter lying face down in the Rio Grande. The pair drowned while trying to ford the river and cross into the U.S.; pictures of the two have circulated widely online in recent days, generating an outcry.

The member asked if the photo could have been faked because the bodies were so “clean.” (The picture was taken by an Associated Press photographer, and there is no indication that it was staged or manipulated.) “I HAVE NEVER SEEN FLOATERS LIKE THIS,” the person wrote, adding, “could this be another edited photo. We’ve all seen the dems and liberal parties do some pretty sick things…”

On July 1, Customs and Border Protection officials announced an investigation into the Facebook group. U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost said the posts “completely inappropriate” and that they were “contrary to the honor and integrity I see—and expect—from our agents day in and day out.” But Joaquin Castro, head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, expressed a different sentiment in a statement given to ProPublica: “It confirms some of the worst criticisms of Customs and Border Protection. These are clearly agents who are desensitized to the point of being dangerous to migrants and their co-workers.”

Department of Homeland Security Releases Detainment Facility Pictures

In a report released Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General detailed the “dangerous crowding” in Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Along with the document, DHS released close to a dozen pictures of the conditions within the camps, including photos of cramped standing-room cells and families sleeping on the floor behind chain-link fences. “At one facility, some single adults were held in standing room only conditions for a week and at another, some single adults were held more than a month in overcrowded cells,” wrote the DHS auditors. One facility’s senior manager called the conditions “a ticking time bomb.”

Department of Homeland Security Faces Pressure to Accept Donations of Soap and Diapers for Migrants

Horrified by the conditions at Border Patrol camps and frustrated by the (up-to) $775 per-migrant, per-day cost that’s still failing to provide necessities like hot meals and diapers, Americans are hoping to donate supplies for the benefit of detained migrants. But under the Antideficiency Act, federal agencies can’t accept funds or goods that are not allocated to them directly from Congress.

In an effort to side-step that law, Republican Senator Ted Cruz wrote a letter to DHS Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan asking if the agency would accept diapers, soap, and other necessities donated by Americans. “Many Americans, however, also want to provide more direct and tangible help — they want to donate basic items such as diapers and toothbrushes to children in CBP custody,” Cruz wrote. “This desire is laudable, and deeply rooted in our nation’s history. Americans have long banded together to form charities and faith-based organizations to aid those in need.”

What We Know About Detained Migrants’ Inhumane Conditions