2021, all year

Four children’s defense organizations filed complaints in a California district court after hearing unaccompanied migrant children narrate abuse and poor treatment while in short-term CBP custody during 2021 (original link). The complaints were filed on April 11, 2022 and shared by VICE News on May 2, 2022.

During 2021, attorneys from the Immigrant Defenders Law Center (ImmDef) provided Know Your Rights presentations and conducted legal screenings for at least 2,356 unaccompanied children exiting CBP custody. “During these legal screenings,” reads ImmDef’s complaint, “staff asked children to describe their experience being processed through the U.S. immigration system, with a focus on the conditions in CBP custody.”

“ImmDef has encountered…twenty-three children who suffered medical neglect,” reads the organization’s complaint, which includes the following examples:

  • R.M.M. [a seventeen-year-old child from Guatemala] received medication for three days, but his later requests for medical attention were outright denied. Instead, CBP officers yelled at him and called him names.
  • M.J.C. [a 14-year-old] requested medical attention, which CBP officers denied for three days, instructing her instead to lie down or sleep. CBP officers eventually had to take M.J.C. to a hospital after her symptoms worsened. Doctors later confirmed that her stomach problems were caused by the food provided in the hielera and that she was living with an untreated broken arm that she sustained during her journey. M.J.C. was eventually returned to the CBP facility, where officers withheld her medications and only provided her the same food that made her sick and landed her in the hospital. She became so hungry that she had no option but to eat the dangerous food, which unsurprisingly caused her to experience the same stomach pain. This time, however, she was too afraid to tell the officers that she was in pain and instead suffered in silence.

A June 2022 report from the Marshall Project elaborated on M.J.C.’s story:

It was during that chaos in the spring of 2021 when M.J., an unaccompanied 14-year-old girl from Guatemala, landed in a Border Patrol facility in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Instead of the maximum of 72 hours, as required, she was held for 18 days, according to case records reviewed by lawyers with the Immigrant Defenders, who are representing her in her immigration case.

M.J. had been injured in the last days of her journey across Mexico. She leapt from a moving freight train, landing on her shoulder in a bank of rocks, M.J. said in an interview in California in March. (Because she is a minor in legal proceedings, she asked that her name and exact location not be published.)

With her arm swollen and blue, M.J. turned herself in to the Border Patrol soon after crossing the Rio Grande. Agents kept her in handcuffs for 24 hours, she said, aggravating the ache.

She was moved to a vast tent holding families and minors, most likely, based on court documents, in Donna, Texas. Crammed with dozens of girls into a cell defined by clear plastic walls, M.J. slept on a narrow metal bench for nearly three weeks. To leave the cell to use the bathroom, she had to ask each girl for permission to step over. She never had a change of clothes, she said.

She fashioned a sling from a borrowed cloth to relieve the throb in her shoulder. An attendant, citing security rules, took it away, M.J. said. There were nurses on duty, but they declined to give her medication for the pain.

“No one told you to come to the United States,” she said one attendant told her.

The only food was egg burritos and beans, often half-frozen. On the fourth day, M.J. said, she started to vomit from stomach cramps and shoulder pain. The medical staff, relenting, sent her to a local clinic, where examinations revealed a fractured shoulder and severe dehydration.

A physician gave her a sling and prescribed a painkiller. After she was returned to the detention facility later that day, M.J. said, a guard took away the new sling. She never received the medication.

  • When B.T.P. [a Guatemalan girl] asked for medical assistance due to constant headaches, she was first ignored and later told that she would see a doctor. The doctor never arrived.
  • M.G.G. [a seventeen-year-old from El Salvador] also reported a lack of COVID-19 precautions and general medical neglect. When she first arrived, M.G.G. was not given a COVID-19 test and later discovered that there were people with active cases of COVID-19 held in the hielera with her. She was not provided with a mask.
  • The food in the hielera consisted of burritos that tasted spoiled, and L.L.C. [a sixteen-year-old child from Guatemala] soon became sick. When she reported feeling ill to medical staff, they did not address her concerns. As a result, L.L.C. was forced to skip meals. L.L.C. witnessed similar treatment of other children when they felt sick—CBP officers refused to provide medicine and only told the children to drink more water.
  • While crossing the border, M.V.P. [a seventeen-year-old child from Guatemala] hurt the back of her right knee while jumping over a wall. When she asked to see a doctor in the CBP facility, she was given unidentified pills but did not receive any other treatment or follow up.… After four days in CBP custody, M.V.P. began experiencing severe stomach pains and complained to CBP officers. Four hours later, she was taken to a nurse, who did not treat her. After another nine to ten hours of suffering severe pain, M.V.P. was taken to the emergency room, where she was diagnosed with dehydration and put on an IV. When she was discharged from the emergency room, the doctor gave the immigration official paperwork about her condition. M.V.P believes there was more to her condition than dehydration, but she never received a copy of that paperwork.

“It is not limited to one child or one instance,” ImmDef’s complaint concludes.

It is not limited to the conduct of a “bad apple” employee within the agency. It is not limited to even a rogue or remote CBP outpost that lacks training and resources. The sheer number of children who have reported abuse, many of whom told us that they fear retaliation and were afraid to speak up, suggests that these examples are but a fraction of the actual total.

— Hannah Comstock, Carson Scott, Madeline Sachs, “Abuse of Unaccompanied Minors in Customs and Border Protection Custody, January to December 2021” (Los Angeles: Immigrant Defenders Law Center, April 6, 2022) https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/21694269-alleged-abuse-of-unaccompanied-minors-in-customs-and-border-protection-custody.

— Keegan Hamilton, “Kids Allege Medical Neglect, Frigid Cells, and Rotten Burritos in Border Detention” (United States: VICE, May 2, 2022) https://www.vice.com/en/article/93b4vv/border-patrol-abuse-migrant-children.

— Anna Flagg and Julia Preston, “‘No Place for a Child’: 1 in 3 Migrants Held in Border Patrol Facilities Is a Minor” (The Marshall Project, Politico: June 16, 2022) https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/06/16/border-patrol-migrant-children-detention-00039291.

Sector(s): Border-Wide

Agency(ies): CBP

Event Type(s): Abuse of Minor, Conditions in Custody, Denial of Medical Care

Accountability Status: Complaint Filed with CRCL, Shared with DHS OIG

Victim Classification: El Salvador, Female, Guatemala, Unaccompanied Child