Attorneys ask court to intervene against U.S. over migrant kids' detention conditions

SAN FRANCISCO/CLINT, Texas (Reuters) - A 17-year-old Honduran migrant described babies sleeping on a cold floor. A teen mother said her sick baby was unable to open her eyes but no one responded to her pleas for help for two days. Another teenager took charge of a 5-year-old stranger because the child was very upset and had no one else after being separated from her father.

FILE PHOTO: Migrant children stand at a shelter and processing center in Deming, New Mexico, U.S. May 27, 2019. May 27, 2019. Picture taken May 27, 2019. REUTERS/Adria Malcolm/File Photo

In papers filed in federal court in Los Angeles late on Wednesday, attorneys for migrant children asked a federal judge to hold the U.S. government in contempt of court for “flagrant and persistent” violations of the terms of a 1997 agreement that governs the treatment of children in immigration detention. They requested immediate action be taken to remedy the “deplorable” conditions.

The filings, which include dozens of declarations from the children, come after attorneys and doctors last week visited Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities in South Texas to monitor compliance with the settlement, known as the Flores agreement.

CBP officials declined to comment on the filings.

The visitors to the facilities found children held for weeks without access to soap, clean water, showers or even a change of clothes, the attorneys wrote. The unhygienic conditions led the flu to spread among the children, who they said were not receiving prompt medical treatment.

The court filings noted that at least six children have died while in U.S. immigration custody or shortly after being released over the past year.

“With each passing day, more hospitalizations are occurring and more lives are at risk,” the attorneys wrote.

“Immediate judicial intervention is necessary to compel immediate compliance with the Agreement, end this health and welfare crisis, and prevent more illness and child deaths at the border,” the filings said.

The attorneys requested an immediate inspection of the facilities in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso sectors by a public health expert. They also requested independent medical professionals be given access and that an emergency case management team be dispatched to speed release of children to parents and close relatives.

In a court filing on Thursday, government attorneys said the court should not grant the emergency request without giving the government the opportunity to reply to the allegations. They said the relief requested would “impose extensive obligations - including sanctions - on the government” and went beyond the terms of the settlement.

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Conditions at the Clint Border Patrol Station outside El Paso, Texas, sparked public outrage last week after the attorneys spoke out.

In a media tour of the facility on Wednesday, border officials did not allow photos or video to be taken, but gave reporters a limited view of cells divided by demographics - young mothers with their children, and young boy and girls held separately. Reporters saw some beds in the cells as well as children on the floor with only blankets.

In a large separate room in the facility teen boys were being held together and provided bunk beds. Showers are provided only every two or three days.

The officials said reporters were given wider access than lawyers monitoring the court settlement who visited the facility last week.Lawyers went public with their concerns about the facility before filing the court papers in accounts that sparked outrage among lawmakers and Democratic candidates for president. The situation in Clint has raised broader concerns about conditions in border patrol facilities that are not properly equipped to hold migrants for long periods.

Station chief Matthew Harris said the Clint facility, which was built in 2012 and originally had capacity for 106 people, had been expanding with 200 additional beds. But a month and a half ago the compound was holding almost 700 children.

The number of mostly Central American families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and seeking asylum in the United States has ballooned in recent months, straining resources. Apprehensions along the southwest border topped 130,000 in May, the highest level in more than a decade. The U.S. Congress approved $4.6 billion in emergency aid to address the migrant surge without the additional protections for migrant children that liberals had sought.

Unaccompanied children, who cross the border alone or who have been separated from an adult they were traveling with, are supposed to be transferred quickly out of border patrol holding facilities and into the care of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which runs shelters for migrant children.

But there are now 178 children in border patrol facilities who have been there longer than the limit of 72 hours, U.S. Representative Diana DeGette said she was told by HHS on Wednesday.

At the Clint facility, the average length of time children are spending in custody is between six and 10 days, Harris told reporters on Wednesday. Teen mothers often stay longer, up to two weeks, because they are harder to place in HHS shelters, he said.

President Donald Trump has made cracking down on immigration a centerpiece of his administration, arguing that the nation’s policies are too lax and filled with loopholes. But officials have struggled to handle the surge in mostly Central American families and unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Trump administration has said it wants to withdraw from the Flores agreement and has proposed new regulations in order to detain migrant children for longer. [L2N1VS0YH]

The agreement, which originated in 1985 with a complaint regarding 15-year-old Salvadoran immigrant Jenny L. Flores, set standards for humane treatment of children in detention and ordered their prompt release in most cases.

The government is still bound by the settlement, and the migrant advocates said in their filings on Wednesday that the administration is flagrantly breaching the terms that call for safe conditions.

One 16-year-old mother from Honduras described her 8-month-old baby vomiting and suffering from diarrhea while not being taken to see a doctor. “My baby daughter has not had medicine since we first arrived,” she said in her declaration.

Many babies were not provided with appropriate food, while parents of infants drinking formula “reported having no ability to wash the bottles,” wrote Dr. Dolly Sevier, who visited the Ursula border processing facility in McAllen, Texas.

Children described inconsolable younger children who were separated from parents or other caregivers at the border.

“There are little kids here who have no one to take care of them, not even a big brother or sister,” one 11-year-old boy said. “Some kids are only 2 or 3 years old and they have no one to take care of them.”

Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in Clint, Texas, and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Julie Marquis, Bill Trott and Leslie Adler