Children are being cussed out by guards and subsisting on meager rations of beans, crackers, and tortillas that leave them feeling ill in a converted Walmart in south Texas.
The new reports of harsh physical conditions, humiliating psychological abuse, and basic deprivation come from children held at the so-called “Casa Padre” facility in Brownsville, Texas, almost a month after President Donald Trump took symbolic steps to quash public outcry over his family separation policy aimed at punishing and deterring migrants.
The children and parents who swore out hundreds of affidavits to attorneys appealing the United States government’s treatment of migrants have mostly fled violence in Central America. The conditions in which they find themselves today in the world’s richest and most powerful country shock the conscience — and almost certainly violate the conditions of the legal settlement that’s bound American officials in treatment of minors in immigration detention for decades, lawyers say.
The harrowing testimonials capture children’s and parents’ experiences at various stops along the Trump administration’s chain from initial processing by Border Patrol agents to transportation by CBP and ICE to the contractor-run Casa Padre facility. In many cases, the only bathroom the children are allowed to use is located inside their holding pen.
“There is a security camera in the room which points to the bathroom” in the CBP cell where a 17-year-old from Guatemala named Noe was kept with a dozen other boys, he said.
“There is no privacy. It is dirty and they don’t clean it,” reported a Guatemalan boy named Erick, describing his first three days in U.S. custody near the border. “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 said, adding that those other boys threaten to stab him if he falls asleep.
“The guards call all the Guatemalans ‘burros’ or stupid or they say we don’t understand anything,” Erick said.
Victor A., 17, fled Honduras after his mother was killed. With his father in jail and his mother’s killer still lurking, he told lawyers, he decided to seek safety in the U.S. After officials gave he and the other boys in his cell food, “everyone got sick.” One building where Victor was housed was kept very cold and the lights were never turned off. “Last night, there were 10 of us kids in the room, but only 3 mattress pads available,” he told lawyers days after his capture.
“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. After a friend didn’t pick up when he made the one call he’s allowed per week, the guard near the phones told him, “This is it for you. You’re fucked.”
Such disdainful or outright abusive treatment from detention guards appears to be the norm. Fatima O., a mother from Honduras, says that when she told guards her daughter had soiled herself they refused to provide her new underpants for several days. Another mom named Daise reported that guards “yelled at my daughter a lot,” “made fun of her,” and “would not let her sleep and kicked her to keep her awake.” Another, Mayra S., said she begged guards for clean water and “officers told me to shut up.” Elmer S., a 15-year-old Honduran, said that after being moved to Casa Padre he has been unable to see doctors or dentists to tend to his medical needs.
“They do not give us enough food and I am always hungry. Also, here at Casa Padre, they do not let us go to the doctor when we ask,” Elmer S. said. “I had an appointment to see the dentist when I was at Casa Esperanza but Casa Padre canceled it when I got here and have not rescheduled.”
Multiple children report being warned that they could be “written up” for any perceived transgression, and that such write-ups would go into the permanent file that an immigration judge would later review to determine whether or not their asylum claims were valid. Casa Padre staff have warned Elmer S. that going over his allotted 10 minutes of weekly phone time with relatives would get him written up, he said.
Such warnings often constitutes the most information anyone has been given by U.S. officials about their legal futures — almost every statement reviewed by ThinkProgress includes a mention of being told to sign papers the detainee didn’t understand because they were written in English. Detainees repeatedly say they have never been told they have any rights or given any information about legal resources that might be available to help them navigate the frightening situation in which they’ve been placed by Trump’s administration.
Sergio C., 16, crossed with his father but they were quickly separated by U.S. officials, he said. “[T]hey told me not to worry that he would be coming in a moment. I went in the car and felt very relieved and happy that he would follow,” he said. “But it wasn’t like that. He didn’t come.”
Instead, Sergio was dropped into what the detainees call the “hielera,” or icebox. Detainees across the board report being kept in frigid conditions with few — if any — blankets. After learning that family members back home in Guatemala had fallen ill, and learning that his father was being kept in even harsher conditions at a separate facility, Sergio became distraught and started crying.
Even after Sergio had been transferred from the “hielera” holding cells at the border to the supposedly kinder, cozier setting of the Brownsville Walmart, he described continued humiliations.
“A staff member here at Casa Padre came in and asked me why I was being such a cry baby. Then he said some words in English that I didn’t understand but other young men who where there told me he said swear words. It made me feel very bad and very ashamed,” Sergio said.
Most of the testimonials reviewed by ThinkProgress refer to thin burritos made up only of beans and tortilla. Often children report they were served cold, and that they left kids feeling sick. Numerous other child and adult detainees held in various facilities have reported being given sandwiches that were still frozen, with blackened lettuce that might be rotten, according to stories from the Texas Observer, Associated Press, and other outlets.
The horror stories were unearthed by attorneys seeking a judge’s help to enforce the longstanding consent decree that governs U.S. treatment of child detainees and families of migrants that include minor children. Only about one in 10 interviewees reported being treated particularly well, or offered any praise for the adequacy of the food, blankets, or other conditions, attorney Peter Schey of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law said in the filing that accompanied the shocking testimonials.
“[A]bout 90%… provide testimony that is shocking and atrocious,” Schey wrote. “It amounts to a picture not just of forcibly separating thousands of children from their parents, but on a much broader level of a program of forced hunger, forced thirst, forced sleep deprivation, coupled with routine insults, threats, and physical assault, that leave class member children crying, trembling, hungry, thirsty, sleepless, sick, and terrified.”
“Mental health experts agree that many class members will never fully recover from the terror and humiliation they experienced in Defendants’ custody.”
Though Schey is bound by legal standards to use the word “Defendants” there, the rest of us don’t have to be so oblique. The people doing this to the 900-plus children at Casa Padre and thousands of others at various CBP, ICE, and contractor-run facilities — while also failing to reunite families as they were ordered to do by a federal court — are officials of the United States government that represents all 300-plus million people who are citizens of this country.
This piece has been updated to add testimony from Elmer S. and to clarify the distinction between stories that took place at Casa Padre and those that happened prior to children being moved to that facility. This piece has also been corrected to remove a detail about children sleeping on the floor that was in reference to a different facility, not Casa Padre.