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 encountered forty-two children who were held in unsanitary conditions, 126 children who were forced to sleep on the ground or outside, and 452 children who were detained for longer than 72 hours,” the organization’s complaint reads. “Many children also reported extremely cold temperatures and privacy violations.” Examples include:

  • [L.G.O. is a thirteen-year-old child from El Salvador, was] forced to lie on the floor without a mattress. She was unable to sleep because light and noise were constant. L.G.O. was never given the opportunity to shower.
  • H.G.C. is a sixteen-year-old child from Guatemala who was held in a hielera for three days. H.G.C. was also held in a cell that housed other detainees and contained only one, entirely exposed toilet. H.G.C.’s only hope for privacy was to ask his cellmates to move to the opposite side of the room each time he used the bathroom. During his three days in the hielera, the lights were always on, causing H.G.C. to lose sense of whether it was day or night.
  • G.G.G. is a seventeen-year-old child from Guatemala who was detained for four days in a hielera that had bathrooms without doors, leaving him and the other children without any privacy while using the toilet. The facility was kept at very cold temperatures, yet G.G.G. never received a blanket thick enough to keep him warm.… During his four days in CBP custody, G.G.G. was only allowed to make one phone call.
  • O.L.L., an eleven-year-old child from Guatemala, was detained in a hielera for seven and a half days under frigid conditions that caused his lips to turn purple. O.L.L. only speaks Spanish, yet officers spoke to him in English. He was only allowed to make one phone call every three days.
  • [D.S., a seventeen-year-old child from Romania,] was given a mylar blanket but was never provided a toothbrush or toothpaste.
  • [D.C.E., a 16-year-old,] was not given supplies to brush his teeth or take a full shower, and he did not have privacy when using the bathroom. While D.C.E. was detained, the lights were always on in the facility, making it difficult for him to distinguish between day and night. His waking hours were marked by meals consisting of old or spoiled food, which made him sick.
  • CBP officers yelled loudly near her ears [M.J.C., a 14-year-old] to wake her up and only gave her a mylar blanket to keep warm despite M.J.C.’s request for a different blanket. She was forced to sleep on a bench or on the ground close to others, in blatant disregard for the risks of such proximity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. M.J.C. was also repeatedly denied requests to use the toilet and was never given a change of clothes—for eighteen days, she wore the same dirty clothes she had arrived in.
  • M.T.P., B.T.P., and A.T.P. are three sisters from Guatemala who were detained in CBP custody for seven days, during which they experienced mistreatment and medical neglect. The T.P. sisters were placed in a dirty, crowded detention facility where they were held with other children who were sick to the point of vomiting. They were not allowed to shower for the first four days they were detained and reported that CBP failed to undertake any efforts to maintain hygiene or social distancing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The sisters felt uncomfortable using the toilets in the facility due to the lack of privacy, and they were not provided with sufficient sanitary supplies. All three sisters experienced issues with the quality of food. M.T.P. became so sick she was forced to stop eating the burritos. Instead, she ate only a cookie and water each day and was afraid to ask CBP officers for alternatives or medicine because she had seen others being yelled at.
  • During her thirteen days in the hielera, M.G.G. [a seventeen-year-old from El Salvador] was never given a blanket or a change of clothes and was only allowed to shower once. By way of explanation, CBP officers swore at her and told her that it “wasn’t a hotel.” Every day, she was woken up early and could not sleep. M.G.G. also reported that she was given old and rotten food. For thirteen days, she was only fed burritos with rice and apples. When she told CBP officers that she felt sick, they told her to drink more water and exercise. However, she was only given a single small bottle of water each day at 6am.
  • L.L.C. [a sixteen-year-old child from Guatemala] was transferred to a hielera in Texas, where she stayed for the next twelve days. L.L.C. described the walls of the hielera as equivalent to a thick nylon, and she was held in a room approximately the size of a conference room with eighty-one other girls. The cell was so crowded that she was forced to sleep pressed up against the person next to her or sitting up. L.L.C. described being extremely cold day and night. She described feeling like she and the other children were being treated like animals. The food in the hielera consisted of burritos that tasted spoiled, and L.L.C. 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. described that it was difficult to sleep because the CBP officers woke them every hour in order to clean the cells and the lights were always kept on. L.L.C. was only able to brush her teeth three times per week, and she was only able to bathe once during the twelve days she was held in the hielera. L.L.C. felt that there was no privacy in the bathrooms, and there were several times when she did not have toilet paper. She was only allowed to make one, two-minute telephone call, and during the call a CBP officer stood within earshot.
  • In the hielera, M.V.P. [a seventeen-year-old child from Guatemala] was confined to a cell with around eighty other people, including women with small children. M.V.P. reported that there was nowhere to sit or sleep the first night, and she slept sitting on a metal bench the following nights. The cell also contained a toilet, which was not closed off from the rest of the space. As a result, M.V.P. and her cell mates were forced to use the mylar blankets that they slept with as makeshift curtains to create privacy for the toilet. M.V.P. was not given any opportunity to shower during her time in CBP custody.
  • Once J.N.P. [a 16-year-old] arrived at the hielera, she was forced to bathe with many other girls in one bathroom. There was no privacy except for transparent curtains, and J.N.P. reported feeling very uncomfortable. The girls had to bathe without clothes on, yet officers were present with them in the bathrooms and were rude and disrespectful. When J.N.P. and some of the other girls complained, the CBP officers yelled at them and rushed them out as soon as their five minutes were up. Even after she bathed, J.N.P. developed head lice and dandruff due to the unsanitary conditions. Throughout her time in the hielera, J.N.P. was given egg burritos for every meal, which left her feeling hungry and ultimately gave her stomach pains. When she needed to use the bathroom, there was no privacy—the toilets were separated by walls on the sides but not in the front, and J.N.P. felt uncomfortable using the bathroom because others could see everything. The temperatures inside the hielera were kept extremely cold, and J.N.P. was denied blankets or more clothes when she asked. The cold made sleeping difficult, and J.N.P. was forced to sleep on a thin mat pressed up against strangers due to overcrowding. The lights were also left on the entire time, yet when J.N.P. and other children could not sleep, CBP officers only yelled at them. Throughout her time in the hielera, J.N.P. was not allowed to make any phone calls.

“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.

Sector(s): Border-Wide

Agency(ies): CBP

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

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

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