Jurisprudence

“Some Did Not Have Socks. Their Hair Was Dirty.”

An interview with an immigration lawyer who visited the detained children in Clint, Texas.

A man climbs the U.S.-Mexico border for fun in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, on Saturday.
A man climbs the U.S.-Mexico border for fun in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, on Saturday.
Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

Professor Bill Ong Hing, who teaches at the University of San Francisco Law School, founded the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which provides legal services for immigrants in need, in 1979. He recently returned from an inspection team visit to the processing facility in Clint, Texas, the same camp that has made headlines in recent weeks for the squalid conditions under which hundreds of children and teenagers were living without adequate food, water, or medical treatment. Last week journalists and inspectors were permitted to enter the camp and determine whether conditions had improved, though independent doctors still have not been allowed inside. I reached out to Hing via email to learn what he witnessed. Our conversation, below, has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dahlia Lithwick: Can you explain what it means to be a member of a “Flores inspection team” and why you were allowed to visit the facility in Clint?

Bill Hing: More than 20 years ago, attorneys representing the class of children held in immigration detention reached a settlement with the federal government over the conditions under which children can be detained. That court-approved settlement is referred to as the “Flores agreement” or “Flores settlement.” The broad terms of the settlement provide that:

• The government is required to release children from immigration detention without unnecessary delay in order of preference beginning with parents and including other adult relatives as well as licensed programs willing to accept custody.

• With respect to children for whom a suitable placement is not immediately available, the government is obligated to place children in the “least restrictive” setting appropriate to their age and any special needs, and notice of rights.

• The government is required to implement standards relating to the care and treatment of children in immigration detention.

The standard of care and treatment includes basic requirements, including safe and sanitary facilities, toilets and sinks, drinking water and food, medical assistance, temperature control, supervision, and contact with family members, among other requirements.

The Flores settlement also mandates that authorities operate with a policy favoring release to a parent, legal guardian, adult relative, or licensed program. Upon taking a minor into custody, federal government or the licensed program must make and record a prompt and continuous effort toward family reunification and release, as well as maintain up-to-date records of minors held for longer than 72 hours, including biographical information and hearing dates. A more recent federal law is relevant here, too. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), passed in 2008, requires that after an unaccompanied child is screened by Customs and Border Protection officers, he or she must be transferred to custody of Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services, typically within a 72-hour period, for care and further screening. This requirement puts children in the care of an agency set up to safeguard their best interest, rather than an agency whose mission is to enforce immigration laws.

As part of ensuring that the terms of the Flores settlement have been met, the federal court authorizes regular inspections of facilities where detained children are held. The plaintiffs’ attorneys conduct those inspections and often ask for volunteers to be part of a team. I volunteered and was selected to be part of the Clint facility team.

When was your last visit to the facility in Clint, and how long were you there?

I was there for three days, from June 17–19.

Tell us about the ages of the children you met with and what conditions they described.

I personally interviewed a boy who was 4 years old and a girl who had turned 18 the day before. However, one of the team members interviewed a 2-year-old. I also interviewed three teen mothers who carried their infants in their arms—one baby was only 5 months old. Everyone I interviewed had been at this facility for at least nine days. Most had been in the facility for more than 12 days, and some for 17–20 days. Several of the younger children I interviewed were unbathed and wore dirty clothes. Some did not have socks. Their hair was dirty. I came to realize that the younger children were dirtier than the older children because the smaller ones were hesitant to bathe by themselves; there was also no one who helped them wash their clothes. With only a couple exceptions, none of the children I interviewed were offered clean clothes. All reported that the belongings they carried to the border were thrown away by CBP officers.

One 5-year-old boy that I interviewed was sick. He had a runny nose and coughed. He said that he had not seen a doctor. I reported this to a CBP officer, and she told me that the boy would be seen by a doctor “tomorrow.” Some girls reported that they felt unsafe going to the bathroom. Many reported that they were not given sufficient food to eat and that they were often hungry. I interviewed one 13-year-old boy who had the flu and a 17-year-old boy who was getting over the flu. They both contracted the flu while at the CBP facility. They both felt that they caught the flu because they were in cramped quarters where other people were coughing or sick.

The children were detained in cramped rooms that slept 20–50 persons, depending on the size of the room. Some had beds, others had mats to sleep on. Still others had no mats to sleep on. The children are confined to their rooms all day long, except when the room is cleaned, when they are out to eat, or when they must go the bathroom. Two 17-year-old boys reported that they were able to go outside to play every day for 20 to 60 minutes. Younger kids reported that they were not able to go outside to play on a daily basis. They reported that they could only go outside every two or three days to play.

The children were given the same three meals every day: for breakfast, an oatmeal mix with a juicy pouch drink and a cookie or bar; lunch was an instant cup of noodles or ramen-type “soup” with another juicy drink; and dinner was a microwaved frozen burrito. Fresh fruits and vegetables were never provided.

None of the children I interviewed knew what was happening in terms of the possibility of release. All of the ones I interviewed, except the 5-year-old boy, had contact information for relatives in the United States readily available.

How many children are currently being held by CBP at the Clint facility?

When we arrived at Clint on June 17, more than 350 children were detained. We were provided with the list, case numbers, and birthdates of the children. We have been told by CBP authorities that a little more than 100 children are still there (in fact, some were transferred and returned last week).

Isn’t there a legal cap on how many hours children can be held by CBP before release? How can these children be detained in facilities for weeks on end?

Under the TVPRA, CBP should not be holding the children for more than 72 hours. CBP is clearly in violation of the law and the Flores agreement. CBP has conceded that it is not equipped to handle the detention of children for more than a few days. CBP points its fingers at ORR (which is operated by HHS) for not having enough capacity to take the children sooner.
Some allies of the migrants argue that ORR should be processing and releasing the children currently in its facilities more quickly to waiting sponsors to free up space. That is one solution.

But in my view, the better solution is to not separate the children from the relatives who accompanied them to the border in the first place—and to not detain them. I have been doing this type of work for more than 40 years, and the appearance rate for those who are released is way over 90 percent. In other words, there is not a serious problem with them absconding. Also, the Family Case Management Program pilot program began operating in January 2016. Under the program, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that oversaw the program, provided basic necessities when these families arrived, ensuring they had appropriate access to food, shelter, and medical care so they could be more ready and able to comply with immigration requirements. The program worked very well for the over 900 families it served, incentivizing them to comply with immigration court appearances. But the Trump administration abruptly halted the program.

Can you describe what you saw when you were collecting statements from the children being detained at the facility?

Children who reach the border with an aunt, uncle, older sibling, or cousin are immediately separated from that person at the border—no matter how old the child. One of the most striking things I witnessed was how toddlers are left to care for themselves—including a 2-year-old the team encountered. After completing the declaration for one of the children I had interviewed, I walked into a larger conference room to use a printer while two other team members were conducting interviews at opposite ends of the room.

One attorney was interviewing a 6-year-old girl, who began crying. Honestly, that sight made me cry. The attorney took the girl by the hand and walked over to a teen detainee holding a 2-year-old and being interviewed on the other side of the room. It turned out that the teen was not the mother or relative of either little girl. The teen had been comforting the toddler and the 6-year-old for days out of a sense of sympathy. The teen was simply a kind person who was assigned to the same room as the toddler and 6-year-old. The 6-year-old had been separated from an aunt at the border by CBP officials days earlier.

Siblings of different genders are not housed together. They only get to see each other during meals, and it is at a distance. Two of the nursing mothers wore shirts that were stained in the breast area. Although all the mothers indicated that they received three meals per day, the meals did not contain fruits or vegetables. No milk was ever given to the mothers to drink. Two infants had recently been hurriedly hospitalized off-site for a few days after contracting the flu—fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea.

Many of the older children had the flu. In that case, they were moved to a “flu room” where all children suspected of having the flu were confined.

You and several groups have now filed a motion to shutter the facility. Some of the declarations from the children are devastating. What legal relief are you seeking?

We are asking that the CBP immediately be required to abide by the conditions of the Flores agreement and that no child be detained for more than 72 hours in these facilities. We are demanding that CBP immediately start processing children for release to parents and relatives as required by the Flores settlement, and to provide them with basic necessities including adequate food, clean water, medical care, and access to sleep. The temporary restraining order further demands immediate, unfettered access of medical experts to the facilities, to evaluate and treat the children.

After your visit, the Clint facility was opened up to the press, and reports suggest that the number of kids has decreased to about 100 and conditions are improving. Do you have reason to believe that is accurate?

An updated list has not been provided to us. We cannot confirm the number of children that are currently detained at Clint. We also cannot confirm that conditions have been improved because we have not been permitted to return and interview the current children in detention, nor have we been permitted to walk around the facility to inspect.