A report this week revealed the Trump administration is holding young immigrant children and babies in so-called “tender age” detention facilities after forcibly removing them from their parents at the U.S. southern border.
The news comes little more than two weeks after Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave an interview and attempted to downplay the number of young children being separated from their families as part of the administration’s new “zero-tolerance” immigration policy as well as the conditions in which they were being “maintained.”
According to the Associated Press, officials have established three separate facilities in South Texas to house the children, all younger than 13.
“Lawyers and medical providers who have visited the Rio Grande Valley shelters described play rooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis,” the AP reported. “The government also plans to open a fourth shelter to house hundreds of young migrant children in Houston, where city leaders denounced the move Tuesday.”
The three existing facilities are located in Combes, Raymondville, and Brownsville, and have reportedly been renovated to “serve needs of children including some under 5,” according to the AP. The planned Houston facility would house around 240 children alone.
At least 2,300 immigrant children have been violently removed from their parents since early May, a separate AP report detailed Saturday. Sessions announced on May 7 that any immigrant crossing the border without documentation would be criminally prosecuted and thus families would be separated. The total number is likely higher, since there were reports of families being separated before then.
The policy refers anyone found crossing the border without documentation for criminal prosecution, forcibly splitting family units in the process — a change in policy from previous administrations, which prosecuted unauthorized border crossings as misdemeanor federal offenses and did not refer those claiming asylum.
Since that time, border officials have been criticized for the inhumane conditions inside the immigrant prisons. In addition to holding adults and children alike inside chain-link cages, audio published by ProPublica this week revealed the sounds of nearly a dozen children screaming and crying for their parents as border agents mock them and compare them to an “orchestra.”
Psychologists and pediatric groups alike have said the conditions could cause traumatic, lasting damage in children who are separated from their families.
Human rights groups have since slammed the United States for the cruel and abusive policy.
“The thought that any State would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations’ top human rights official said Monday, speaking to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The statement sparked backlash among the Trump administration, prompting U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to withdraw the United States from its seat on the council, which she described as a “cesspool of political bias.”
Earlier this month, following initial backlash over the new zero-tolerance policy, Sessions sat down with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in an attempt to do damage control, claiming that “most” of the young children being violently separated from their parents were not infants and that all were being “maintained” in a safe facility.
“Most are not infants. Most are teenagers, although we do have a number of younger ones now, more than we’ve seen recently,” he said. “They are maintained in a very safe environment not by the law enforcement team at Homeland Security, but put with Health and Human Services. And they are kept close by, and if the person pleads guilty, they would be deported promptly, and they can take their children with them.”
After Hewitt pressed him on the topic, calling the practice “disturbing,” Sessions replied, “We don’t want to do this at all. If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them.”
Several outlets have since reported that the camps and detention facilities in which many of the young children are being held have faced allegations of abusive behavior and mistreatment of prisoners. Some parents say they were not notified that their children were being taken and did not know where they were.
Immigration experts — including the former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — say there’s a high possibility some of the children separated from their parents may never be reunited with their families.
The Trump administration has struggled to justify its zero-tolerance policy in recent weeks, with officials offering contradictory statements on the matter. Both White House adviser Stephen Miller — seen as the architect of the policy — and chief of staff John Kelly have confirmed the abusive separation practice themselves, with the latter claiming kids would be put in foster care “or whatever.”
However, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen this week claimed in a Twitter thread that the administration did “not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” Two days later, Trump himself stated the opposite during a speech to small business owners.
“I don’t want children taken away from parents, and when you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away,” he said.