When Water is Safer than Land: A Day Inside our Nation’s Immigration Border Jails

Image Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

Last week I spent the day at a “short-term” Customs & Border Protection (CBP) detention facility on the border in California. I was there to interview children who had recently been apprehended by CBP about their treatment in CBP’s custody.

My visit was part of an effort to monitor CBP’s compliance with the Flores Settlement Agreement. The 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement sets national standards for the detention, release, and treatment of both unaccompanied and accompanied children in immigration detention. The Flores Settlement Agreement has recently received renewed media attention, with the White House and some Republicans falsely claiming it requires the separation of families at the border. In reality, Flores says nothing about family separation, but does require that certain basic requirements be met when the government detains children in civil immigration detention.

What I saw that day was disturbing, not only as an immigration attorney, but as a mother myself.

The basic needs and standards of care required by Flores were not being met in the CBP facility. Flores requires that children be held in “safe and sanitary” facilities and be “provide[d] access to toilets and sinks, drinking water and food as appropriate,…[and] adequate temperature control and ventilation.”

The children I interviewed were all teenage boys who had been held by CBP for multiple days and reported being hungry since arrival due to inadequate food. They had courageously made journeys from countries near and far, and one boy had been traveling since January. The children shared that they had only been offered one to two small burritos each day, in addition to crackers and juice. I saw one of the burritos, roughly the size of a dollar and surely not enough to satisfy the hunger of a teenage boy.

Image Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The three children I interviewed also reported being so cold since they arrived that they had been unable to sleep. Apparently, neither bad press calling CBP detention facilities “hieleras” (ice boxes), nor a federal judge ordering them to maintain adequate temperature control has prompted CBP to turn down the air conditioning. The children all wore thin t-shirts or a thin sweatshirt and hadn’t been provided any warm clothes. To keep warm while sleeping, they had only been given one metallic blanket that they said barely made a difference against the frigid temperatures. The lights in the facility were also kept on all night, making sleep even more elusive.

The children also had not had access to soap or hot water to wash their hands since arriving. Though they had access to a toilet, it was located in the room they shared with five other detained teenage boys, so they had no privacy when going to the bathroom.

The last young man I spoke with had a rash covering his body, causing clear discomfort and discoloration of his skin. Despite being in CBP’s custody for three days, he had not been offered any kind of medical treatment. He only spoke Punjabi and was unable to communicate with the guards, so he hadn’t been able to ask for help. One guard provided him a tube of ointment that he presumed was to help with his rash, but he wasn’t given any information about the ointment that he could understand. I requested that he immediately be taken for a visit with a doctor or nurse, to which CBP responded that it “looked like scabies,” a skin disease apparently very common in CBP facilities and for which CBP didn’t think he necessarily needed to see a doctor, as they could provide a topical treatment to control it. After reiterating that the child had requested to see a doctor, the CBP officer stated that they would arrange a visit, but I left the facility uncertain of whether that would actually happen.

Image Credit: ACLU

As the separation of parents and children at the border continues, more and more children are being rendered unaccompanied. Those children will be sent directly to CBP facilities like the one I visited and left hungry, cold, and without adequate access to sanitation or medical care.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services) is responsible for the longer-term detention of unaccompanied children, as they can only be held by CBP for 72 hours under the law. However, as media outlets have been reporting, ORR is overwhelmed by ever increasing numbers of unaccompanied children, a crisis directly created by the administration’s family separation policy.

The Flores site visits have revealed that children are sometimes being held by CBP longer than 72 hours because ORR is not able to place them quickly enough. That means even more time for children in these prison-like facilities.

Whether they arrive at the border with a parent and are forcibly and traumatically separated, or they arrive at our border alone, afraid, and having fled for their lives, no child should ever have to endure such cruel conditions at the hands of a government bound by domestic and international law to provide refuge to those seeking protection. Our country’s leaders and each one of us must continue speak out in support of children like the three I spent time with last week.

Image Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

As my eyes welled with tears driving home from the detention facility, I thought about what I would do if my own family was being threatened or harmed by powerful gangs or other actors that the government was unable or unwilling to protect us from. I reflected on how courageous the parents are who have embarked on treacherous and dangerous journeys in search of asylum and safety for their families, only to be branded as criminals and have their children ripped from their arms.

And I wondered at what point our leaders will look their own children in the eyes and allow themselves to ask: “What would I be willing to do to protect you?”

I hope we’d all be brave enough to do anything we could to keep our children safe, even if it carried us across borders.

In the words of Somali poet Warsan Shire, “No one puts their children on a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

-Rachel Prandini, Staff Attorney, Immigrant Legal Resource Center

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center works nationally to shape immigration law/policy and advance the rights of immigrants. www.ilrc.org