The human rights situation at the southern border continues to decline rapidly. On Monday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she was “appalled by the conditions” migrants face after they cross the U.S.-Mexico border. She added that migrant children were suffering terribly and that she found herself “deeply shocked that children are forced to sleep on the floor in overcrowded facilities, without access to adequate health care or food, and with poor sanitation conditions.” Over the weekend the New York Times ran an astounding exposé of the horrifying conditions at the now-notorious station in Clint, Texas. As revealed by ProPublica last week, a Facebook page used by 9,500 current and former Border Patrol agents revealed a horrifying spectacle of dehumanization that was known to high-level officials for years. President Donald Trump, though, derides his own inspector general’s reports on these conditions as “fake news.”
Confusion reigns about what exactly is happening at the border, who is responsible for it, and what can possibly be done to alleviate the suffering. We grow complicit at our peril, but nobody has any idea what, exactly, to do to substantively help. So I asked Kristin Clarens, a Charlottesville, Virginia, lawyer who’s been visiting immigration facilities at the border for years, to help clarify the reporting we’re getting and to share her thoughts on what people can do. Clarens was one of those attorneys who just took it upon herself to start going down to the border to help children when she started hearing the stories of the types of violence they were fleeing in Central America. She is co-founder of the civic engagement organization Charlottesville Families in Action and recently joined the Legal Aid Justice Center as the local bar’s pro bono coordinator. Our conversation, below, was lightly edited for clarity.
Dahlia Lithwick: What is your job, exactly, and how is it that you have been allowed to visit immigration detention facilities at the border?
Kristin Clarens: I’m a Spanish-speaking lawyer with a limited amount of immigration law experience. I’ve been allowed to visit facilities at the border because I held up my hand and volunteered about two years ago when it was clear how badly our government planned to treat immigrants. I don’t have a particular background in immigration law, nor have I actually been providing legal representation to individuals. The most important tools I have for this work are my ability to speak Spanish and the resilience I’ve developed as a mom of three young children—the rest is all learnable on-site.
Help me to understand the difference between the Customs and Border Protection facilities, the for-profit facilities, the facilities in Mexico, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities. There has been a lot of confusion around the different types of detention.
Immigrants base their trips on the constant stream of information they’re getting from contacts that have made the trip already, or from guiadors, aka coyotes, regarding the safest place to cross. They stop at common places along the route, often including Tapachula and Puebla. Families and kids then tend to head to the coasts, either to the Rio Grande Valley or to Tijuana. As you know, metering at the border means that they’re forced to wait weeks/months in dangerous and uncomfortable situations in these sketchy towns where they’re easily singled out and preyed upon. Unaccompanied kids are unable to get their names on the list, so they’re not even making progress in the queue.
The shelters I’ve visited in Mexico are civil in nature. I was blown away by the selflessness of the people working at the ones I visited, although I imagine that there’s a wide variation in quality and these kids are so incredibly vulnerable. I think the majority of the time, migrants arrive in the border towns and find the informal encampments of people living in old stadiums (i.e., Tijuana, Mexico City, Chiapas), under the bridges (McAllen, Brownsville, Tijuana), or just in groups on the street (Tijuana).
I’ve met very few families/kids who are able to wait in Mexico long enough to present themselves at a port of entry for asylum, in the way that Trump is calling “legal.” Instead, they cross the river/climb the barrier (in Tijuana) and are apprehended by Customs and Border Protection. CBP puts them in patrol vehicles and takes them immediately to one of two types of processing facilities, both of which are run entirely by the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They’re referred to as hieleras (iceboxes) and perreras (dog pounds). These facilities are usually warehouses or trailers (and, in some instances, airport hangars) sprinkled around the barren area around the border. Clint is one such example. For the past couple of months, it seems that most families arriving in the hieleras/perreras have had their biometric and identifying information recorded and then have been immediately released into the nearest town.
Unaccompanied kids are handled differently by our government, and some of the reasons for this are both obvious and necessary. Kids under 18 are referred to as “unaccompanied alien children” or UACs by the government. When they are apprehended by CBP, DHS makes a determination during the processing phase at the hielera/perrera as to whether they are truly unaccompanied. Once that determination has been made, DHS refers the kids to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency under Health and Human Services. HHS works with privately run shelters throughout the country to place kids into longer-term detention while it determines with whom the child can live—the person we refer to as the child’s “sponsor.” HHS’ process for uniting or reuniting kids with their sponsors is incredibly inefficient.
The hieleras and perreras are front-line shelters that are supposed to be used only for processing. The terms of the Flores settlement agreement require that the government use its best efforts to get kids and families out of those facilities within 72 hours, and to offer them basic human needs during that time frame. Most of the kids I’ve met have spent more like five days in these facilities; when I was in Harlingen[, Texas,] last, the wait time had ballooned to closer to eight days.
Hieleras are usually migrants’ first stop and are usually (although not always) trailer facilities, according to what we’ve heard (I haven’t been). The air conditioning is kept at 60 degrees, and the super bright lights are left on all the time. Because this is supposed to be (and sometimes is) a short stop, we are told there is often nowhere to rest or really even to sit. The guards are constantly shouting and moving people in and out. Migrants are only given tortillas a couple of times a day and have a hard time accessing the bathroom and medical care when they need it, they say. Perreras are often longer-term stops and have holding cages like the pictures we all saw online last summer. Usually we hear that kids and families get metallic blankets but that they have to sleep on the ground and have no privacy. Lights stay on all the time. I’ve been told numerous times that all kids over the age of 10 are placed in separate cages from their parents.
After the hielera/perrera phase, kids are sent to longer-term facilities. This is done completely randomly. The kids never know where they are or why.
Which part of this crisis is attributable to Bush/Obama policies, and what parts are the result of new Trump-era policy shifts?
The Trump administration’s conscious disregard for the rule of law results in migrants being detained in temporary facilities for far longer than 72 hours on a regular basis. The ICE processing facilities are crazy places that are front lines in a huge crisis. As an advocate, I realize that these facilities are not going to run perfectly all the time because the circumstances are challenging to say the least. But there’s no sense that the administration is even trying to uphold the spirit of those important protections, and that is different than previous administrations’ responses to challenging circumstances and very tough calls.
The Trump administration’s instructions to ICE officers as to how to determine whether parents are fit to retain custody of their kids continues to lead to unnecessary separations. I’ve met dozens of kids who were separated from their fathers during processing, with no reason given as to why they deemed the father unfit to retain custody. I’ve met many kids who were separated from their mothers because of some unclear but entirely surprising criminal stain on the mother’s record, potentially something related to a prior unlawful entry in the U.S. (something that also was rarely prosecuted under Bush or Obama).
We have been very focused on a few facilities, like Clint, where inspectors have begun to report on horrific conditions. But you have been to a lot of places that aren’t getting attention. What are you seeing that has been underreported in the media?
The impact that long-term detention and a constant state of confusion and mistreatment is having on a large number of adolescent children who will likely remain in our country following this long period of trauma. The continuing separation of families. The complete and utter lack of mental health support within the facilities, even though the government is also required to provide qualified psych services pursuant to the terms of the Flores agreement. Also, the way that people are living at the border can’t be amplified enough. It’s unsafe.
You’re a lawyer. What sorts of things are lawyers able to do, and can any lawyer just fly down and help?
Lawyers are really useful at helping migrants organize their legal cases before they present to CBP at the border or before they have their interviews with asylum officers while they’re detained. Lawyers are also good at flagging urgent legal issues and highlighting bigger-picture issues at the border, which is what Al Otro Lado and others are doing.
Lots of lawyers want to help in the detention facilities, and there are usually waitlists to get in (which is incredible—my experience has been that volunteer lawyers and the donors enabling them to do this work have really shown up and continue to do so). Al Otro Lado has also gotten overwhelmed with volunteers, so it’s important to coordinate with their group beforehand too.
What kinds of services can non-lawyers provide?
The soup kitchens, bus stations, and temporary shelters run by churches and nonprofits at the border are in desperate need of volunteers to show up and help out. The needs vary but can be anything from deciphering bus tickets, to helping set up doctors’ appointments, to making macaroni and cheese, to holding kids while parents shower. Imagine the most underfunded and heavily utilized soup kitchen possible and then some.