At least nine infants under one year of age are being detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC) in Dilley, Texas, according to a complaint filed Thursday by the American Immigration Council, American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the Catholic Immigration Network. One of the infants has been detained for over 20 days.
The groups allege that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is unable adequately care for non-citizen minors in its custody and call for the immediate release of the infants and their mothers. The complaint was filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Office of the Inspector General.
“We have grave concerns about the lack of specialized medical care available in Dilley for this vulnerable population,” the complaint states. “Advocacy groups have long documented the limited access to adequate medical care in family detention centers including the STFRC. Concerns include lengthy delays in receiving medical attention and lack of appropriate follow-up treatment.”
ICE is required to adhere to basic standards of care for children in its custody, in accordance with Flores v. Reno (also known as the “Flores settlement”), which states that the government is to provide minors with food, drinking water, medical assistance in emergency situations, toilets, temperature control, and physical separation from non-family members. The Flores settlement also placed a 20-day limit on how long a child can remain in immigration law enforcement custody.
When reached for comment, an ICE spokesperson told ThinkProgress that the agency is “committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care.”
“Staffing includes registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, licensed mental health providers, mid-level providers that include a physician’s assistant and nurse practitioner, a physician, dental care, and access to 24-hour emergency care,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “As detailed in the June 2017 DHS Inspector General’s report, the family residential centers are ‘clean, well-organized, and efficiently run’ and the agency was found to be ‘addressing the inherent challenges of providing medical care and language services and ensuring the safety of families in detention.'”
After the completion of the June 2017 DHS Inspector General’s report, however, a child previously in detention at Dilley died shortly after their release. Yazmin Juarez, the mother of that child, announced Thursday that she is suing the town that runs the detention center in Dilley, claiming medical staff had provided her 1-year-old with inadequate treatment.
The lawsuit alleges that the child, Mariee, developed a severe fever a week after entering Dilley, on March 8, 2018, and that medical staff misdiagnosed Mariee’s illness and did not prescribe her the correct medication. The mother and daughter were cleared for release on March 25. Almost immediately, Juarez took Mariee to an emergency room. She was hospitalized until her death in May.
ICE’s statement also does not square with what the mothers of the nine infants currently detained at Dilley say they experienced.
Keyla, the mother of one of the infants being held at the detention center, told attorneys that her 9-month-old son has been experiencing diarrhea, eye discharge, a cough, and congestion. She was not allowed to keep his pacifier, which has only added to his distress. Another mother, Yari, requested formula for her 5-month-old child but had to wait over 24 hours to receive it.
In the complaint filed with DHS Thursday, the groups ask for immediate intervention to release the families from custody so they can keep fighting their immigration cases outside of detention.
Both immigration and health care advocates have long issued expressed their serious concerns regarding medical care at detention facilities, particularly those housing mothers and their young children. Earlier this year, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) wrote a letter to the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus, providing examples of the physical and mental impacts detention places on children: a 16-month-old baby lost a third of his body weight over 10 days because of untreated diarrheal disease; a 27-day-old infant was born during his mother’s journey but not examined by a physician until he had a seizure due to undiagnosed bleeding of the brain; and numerous cases of children being vaccinated with adult doses.
“A detention center is no place for a child, especially infants who have special needs,” Dr. Katherine Ratzan Peeler, a member of Physicians for Human Rights’ Asylum Network who medically examines asylum seekers at detention centers for their cases, told ThinkProgress. “The women and children that I have seen, sometimes do see a specialist or a doctor, but it seems like it’s just for an initial screening. There’s a lot of talk about long wait times, which I suspect has something to do with the facilities understaffed.”
“I also suspect there’s also some staff who are not properly trained,” she added.
News of the increase in infants detained at Dilley comes the same week as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus announced it is seeking a full investigation after an immigrant woman gave birth to a stillborn while in ICE custody earlier this month. ICE officials reported that over the last two years, 28 women have miscarried while in their custody.
With 2,400 beds, Dilley is one of the largest family detention centers in the country. It has faced a significant influx in the number of people housed there after President Donald Trump enacted, and then later reversed, a “zero-tolerance” policy at the border which separated immigrant children from their parents.