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Inside the Texas border facility that's been accused of child neglect, 'public health emergency'

Posted at 4:44 PM, Jun 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-27 17:44:58-04

The little face pressed against the glass window of the concrete cell belonged a toddler peering out at a group of journalists allowed access into a remote compound outside El Paso, Texas.

It's one of two facilities now the target of a restraining order filed early Thursday by a group of lawyers alleging the conditions inside are so unsafe and unsanitary that they have declared it a “public healthemergency."

The lawyers want Customs and Border Protection to be held in contempt for violating a court mandate that migrant children be properly cared for. One pediatrician described the conditions for migrant kids, exposed to meager food, inadequate sleeping arrangements, heinous overcrowding and rough treatment by agents as “torture.”

CBP has denied most of the allegations, insisting that while conditions are not ideal because of overcrowding, the children are given enough food and access to hygiene products.

In a statement, the agency said despite limited resources it works “to provide the best care possible for those in their custody, especially children" and "All allegations of civil rights abuses or mistreatment in CBP detention are taken seriously.”

On Wednesday afternoon, several days after the reports of mistreatment, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agreed to open the doors to news media at the station near Clint, Texas, allowing reporters to walk through a building that has process thousands of unaccompanied migrant children, and which one official frequently likened to a local police station.

Indeed, the U.S. Border Patrol's Clint Station is set up as a jail, with a central pod and nine cells radiating outward. It was designed to hold adult migrants, but the Border Patrol says it keeps the cell doors exiting to the central pod unlocked. The children are sequestered by age and sex. CBP said the children can range from months old to just under 17.

(MORE: Acting head of Customs and Border Protection resigns, acting ICE leader tapped)

During the tour, ABC News saw children who appeared to be toddlers, mingling with older female children in a crowded cell. The children appeared to be issued a thin foam mattress and thin cotton blanket.

The CBP prohibited ABC News and other news organizations from filming inside or speaking with any of the children because of what the agency said were legal and privacy concerns.

For the girl inmates, those cramped cells are where they take their meals, sleep and use the bathroom. Televisions outside the cells play movies during the day. Some of the children seen by ABC News sat on cots, staring at the walls. One girl left a bank of phones sobbing, for reasons that were not clear.

A corridor leading out from the central pod area led to a converted sally port to accommodate the male children, who kicked a deflated soccer ball around their concrete pad cordoned off by chicken wire. The gate of the boys’ area was open when ABC News was there.

The facility was completed in 2013 and designed for booking and processing migrants. It’s built to accommodate about 106 people. On Wednesday evening, at the time of a media tour, it held 117 children, but its population had swollen to an untenable 700 earlier this year, said Matthew Harris, the station’s lead patrol agent.

(MORE: Senate overwhelmingly agrees to send emergency humanitarian relief to southern border)

(Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

A child will typically spend six to 10 days at the Clint Station before being transferred out, Harris said. That is well past the legal minimum of 72 hours. While are there exceptions for extraordinary circumstances, agents at Clint have been dealing with overflows for the past year.

The exploding population at Clint prompted the agency to increase the number of portable showers in recent weeks from two to eight. Between meals, Harris said the children are allowed to play in a gravel yard flanked by portable toilets. The area is about the size of an average sized swimming pool. There is a drooping basketball hoop.

The Clint facility had about 300 children when doctors and lawyers came to inspect the conditions and found that older children were often caring for younger children. The lawyers were prohibited from visiting the living quarters but interviewed some of the children describing them as filthy and hungry.

Facility rules have the children eat breakfast of a single packet of oatmeal at 7 a.m. every day. Lunch is a cup of Ramen noodles and a burrito served for dinner, and CBP says each meal is offered with pudding, juice and one cereal bar. Twice a day, the kids are offered more pudding, juice and a cereal bar. Fruits and vegetables are not provided.

Harris said his agents -- tasked officially with patrolling U.S. borders between points of entry — spend more than half their time caring for kids and for the past year.

“None of us have any training in this type of thing,” Harris told ABC News.

(MORE: Doctor compares conditions for unaccompanied children at immigrant holding centers to 'torture facilities')

But agents, many of them mothers and fathers, draw on experiences with their own families, he said. He claimed some agents have developed close relationships with the kids under their care, doing what they can to make them feel safe in a foreign place.

“We have to be constantly providing things that we typically wouldn’t for a normal adult in our custody,” he said.

Using resources normally spent on guarding the nation’s borders, he said officers have been tasked with changing diapers, helping the little ones brush their teeth and rounding up the kids for a regimented schedule of meals.

Some 14,000 kids currently reside in U.S. custody who are deemed "unaccompanied" because they aren't traveling with their parents — about 1,000 of them currently waiting at Border Patrol stations waiting to be transferred to more permanent shelters scattered across the U.S. These are mostly older children and teens who cross the border alone, but sometimes younger children too will travel to the U.S. with extended relatives with the hopes of joining parents already living in the U.S.

Fleeing violence and economically destitute conditions, the record-setting numbers of arriving families have pushed the limits of Border Patrol resources as authorities attempt to arrest everyone who crosses illegally between ports of entry.

The result is what both U.S. border officials and immigrant advocates call a humanitarian crisis.