Migrant Children Describe Abuse, Hunger in U.S. Detention Facilities

(Bloomberg) -- As the U.S. races to meet a court deadline this week to reunite children separated from their families under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, a judge in Los Angeles is weighing whether to appoint a monitor to oversee their treatment while in custody.

Human rights lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles to appoint a special monitor, arguing that the U.S. has conducted a “full-scale assault” on the landmark agreement known as the Flores settlement, first reached in 1997, which restricts the government’s ability to detain immigrant minors and mandates standards of care.

Gee is one of two federal judges in California considering the plight of detained immigrant children that has sparked a roiling national debate. U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego is presiding over a separate case regarding the reunification of immigrant children taken from their parents at the southern border in a crackdown by the Justice Department that began in April and resulted in about 3,000 kids, including infants and toddlers, detained by the U.S.

In the case before Gee, the human rights lawyers presented first-hand accounts from about 225 children and parents who described being abused, hungry and frightened as they were held at border facilities. Some children described inadequate and inedible food, including expired baby formula and juice as well as sandwiches that were either spoiled or frozen.

Teenagers spoke of being unable to bathe or brush their teeth and being forced to sleep in crowded cells on cement floors or benches. One mother said she and her three-year-old shared two mattresses in a room 10 feet by 10 feet with six other people.

In June, Sabraw ordered the U.S. to stop holding parents without their kids and to reunite the children who’d already been separated.

In a status report Monday ahead of a July 26 deadline, the Justice Department said that of as many as 2,551 children over age 5 separated from their parents, 1,634 were “eligible” to rejoin their families. Of those, 879 children have been reunited and another 538 have been cleared to be reunited. The government previously said it returned 58 children under the age of 5 to their parents, bringing the total of completed or planned reunifications to 1,475.

Overlapping Suits

The Flores settlement and the recent family separation crisis overlap, according to the human rights lawyers, because the zero tolerance policy has resulted in thousands of children placed in precarious situations.

To understand the interplay of the two cases and the legal landscape requires a look back to a case so old that the U.S. Attorney General at the time was Edwin Meese, serving under President Ronald Reagan. The case is named for a 15-year-old Salvadorean immigrant who sued over the conditions of her detention.

After Flores’s suit and others went through the courts, a 1997 agreement was reached by the Clinton administration to require children be released either to their parents, a legal guardian, another relative or an individual vetted by federal authorities. It also specified that if immediate placement to parents or other adult relatives wasn’t possible, the government should place the children in the “least restrictive” setting and ensure standards of care and treatment.

A later decision in the case interpreted speedy release to mean an average of 20 days from arrival in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.

‘Cynical Attempt’

The Trump administration claimed -- after a public outcry over reports and images of children in cages -- that it had no choice because of Flores but to separate parents and minors. This month, Gee rejected the administration’s request to modify the agreement to allow immigrant families to be detained in long-term facilities, calling it a “cynical attempt to undo a longstanding court settlement.”

As the court battle continues, the outlook in Congress isn’t much clearer. There are no hearings or votes on immigration or the family separations scheduled in the House this week and representatives are scheduled to leave town for recess on Friday and won’t return until the beginning of September.

In the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, said last week that talks on a legislative remedy for the separations of families are “dead.”

Senators from both parties who have been involved in the negotiations said there’s general agreement about the need to increase the number of immigration law judges and legal representatives to hasten resolution of cases involving families. But there’s no consensus about how and whether to pass a law that would overhaul or recast the 1997 Flores settlement.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.