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Immigrant children held for days in ‘ice-box’ chain-link holding pens

Watchdog report finds the Trump administration's abusive family separation policy was doomed from the start.

Migrant children separated from their parents at the border under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy have been subjected to harsh conditions in U.S. detention facilities, an unpublished report by the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Inspector General found. (Photo credit: Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Migrant children separated from their parents at the border under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy have been subjected to harsh conditions in U.S. detention facilities, an unpublished report by the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Inspector General found. (Photo credit: Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Migrant children separated from their parents at the border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy have been subjected to harsh conditions in U.S. detention facilities, an unpublished report by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General found.

The report, obtained by The Washington Post, found at least 860 migrant children were held in Border Patrol holding cells longer than 72-hours, the maximum length of time mandated by the U.S. courts. One child was held for 12 days and another for 25.

The Border Patrol holding cells are notoriously torturous, earning the nickname of “hieleras,” or “ice box,” among the immigrants who have spent time in the frigid spaces with few — if any — blankets.

The holding cells were designed as a temporary stop for minors as they wait to be transferred to shelters run by Health and Human Services (HHS). Aside from their frigid temperatures, many of them also lack adequate beds, have zero shower facilities, and are essentially chain-link holding pens.

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Reports of harsh physical conditions were outlined in a court filing earlier this summer and based on interviews between immigration lawyers and detained children, about their time in the holding cells and contractor-run detention facilities for unaccompanied minors.

“There is no privacy. It is dirty and they don’t clean it,” a Guatemalan boy named Erick said, describing his first three days in Border Patrol custody. “The room is always cold. The guards took my sweater. I sleep on the floor. There are 3 mattresses, but the boys from Honduras have taken them.”

He added that the “other boys” had “threaten[ed] to stab him if he [fell] asleep.”

A 17-year old named Victor from Honduras said he fled the country after his mother was killed. After Border Patrol officials fed him and the other boys in his holding cell food from the facility, “everyone got sick.” According to Victor, the room he was held in was also kept very cold and the lights were never turned off.

“When I told the CBP officer that my mother was killed, they made fun of me and said I was ‘weak.’ I didn’t feel comfortable after that sharing my fear,” Victor said.

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The DHS OIG report also describes just how poorly mismanaged the zero tolerance policy was — how it left parents with little-to-no information on their children’s whereabouts and no plan for how to reunite them.

DHS investigators discovered that officials shared minor’s files via Microsoft Word email attachments because the government’s internal systems were unstable. “Each step of this manual process is vulnerable to human error, increasing the risk that a child could become lost in the system,” the report stated.

Border Patrol agents separated children who could not yet speak from their parents and did not provide wrist bracelets or any other form of identification to the children, nor were they ever fingerprinted or photographed to ensure they were linked to the correct case file.

According to Border Patrol, their top priority is to “process and transfer all individuals in our custody to the appropriate longer-term detention agency as soon as possible.”

In response to the inspector general’s report, DHS acknowledged a “lack of information technology integration” and that migrant children were “sometimes” held in holding cells longer than is legally permitted, but only because space at HHS shelters was so limited.

Though the abusive family separation practice was technically ended through executive order months ago — the Trump administration effectively reversed its own previous policy — hundreds of children remain separated from their parents, most of them deemed “ineligible for reunification by the federal government.”

According to the latest government numbers, 136 children are still in custody, 3 of whom are under the age of 5. Many of their parents say they were deported before they could be reunited with their children, and some claim they were pressured to give up their right to reunification by officials who used English-only documents and confusing instructions.

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Though migrant children are technically no longer being separated from their parents at the border, thousands of them continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents. Once they arrive, they risk being subjected to the harsh conditions outlined in the DHS report.