Highlights from “Neglect and Abuse of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children by U.S. Customs and Border Protection”, a report by the ACLU

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Many of you probably do not have the time to read the entire 50-page report the ACLU recently released about the neglect and abuse of unaccompanied immigrant children by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.  As such, I wanted to highlight some important information from that report.  This post will still be quite long as it is a 50-page document I’m pulling from, but not as long as if you were to read the whole thing yourself.

This report has been getting conflated in the media with another report that ORR “lost” track of 1,475 children after they left custody.  It’s sort of confusing, but there are actually 3 things going on right now.  1) The children HHS can’t find, 2) Separation of children from parents at the border, and 3) Abuses and neglect of children in Border Control custody.

In regards to the first issue, human and immigration rights activists have assured that those children mostly went to live with family or friends and that the communities most affected by this do not, in fact, want ICE to be paying closer attention and keeping closer tabs on children once they leave custody, particularly since they may be going to live with undocumented relatives who could potentially be deported.

In regard to the second issue, Glennon Doyle’s charity, Together Rising, is doing some amazing work to help reunite children with their families.  You can read more about that here.

While all three issues are terribly important and horrifying, it is the third issue that I’ll be focusing on today, the abuses and neglect of children in Border Control custody.

You can find the entire 50-page report from the ACLU here:

Neglect and Abuse of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children by U.S. Customs and Border Protection
The ACLU, 22 May 2018

Introduction and Background
Tens of thousands of children from Central America and Mexico travel to the United States as unaccompanied minors every year in an attempt to escape violence and poverty in their home countries.  Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detains many of these children when they arrive in the United States.  1 in 4 children reported physical abuse, including sexual assault, the use of stress positions, and beatings by CBP agents.  Over half reported verbal abuse (including death threats) and denial of necessary medical care.  A staggering 80% reported inadequate food and water.  The report focuses on intimidation, harassment, physical abuse, refusal of medical services, and improper deportation that occurred between 2009 and 2014.

 Most migrants who come to the United States are risking their lives, “in search of safety, stability, and opportunity.”  UNICEF says that 26,000 migrant deaths have been recorded since 2014.  With the number of migrant deaths that go unreported, that number is likely much higher.  “Migrants are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, theft, human traffickers, and other criminal actors seeking to benefit from their desperation…children migrants are especially vulnerable, particularly when traveling alone.”

 “Children are forced to seek refuge in other countries to escape armed conflict, violent crime, endemic poverty, natural disasters, discrimination, and other forms of oppression.”

 In 2016 alone, 12 million of the world’s refugees were children. “In 2015, 10 [million] of the 21 million refugees seeking asylum outside their countries of origin were children.”

 Children migrating to the United States usually come from one of four countries: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  The “northern triangle,” which is formulated of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, is considered one of the most violent regions in the world, with an estimated 150,000 people being killed there from 2006 to 2016 alone.

 Some abuses that took place while children were in CBP custody include officials pointing their guns at children, officials shooting children with Tasers for punishment or amusement, officials hitting or kicking children, and officials threatening children with rape or death.  Government reports and firsthand accounts also detail children “held in freezing rooms with no blankets, food, or clean water;” children “forced to sleep on concrete floors or share overcrowded cells with adult strangers;” children “denied necessary medical care;” children “being bullied into signing self-deportation paperwork;” and children “being subjected to physical and sexual assault.”

CBP officers and agents are only allowed to use “objectively reasonable” force and can only use force when it is “necessary to carry out their law enforcement duties.”  In practice, CBP agents and officers “regularly use force on children when such force is not objectively reasonable or necessary.”

 CBP officers and agents are allowed to use tasers and similar weapons, which they refer to as electronic control weapons (ECWs), if and only if “a subject [is] offering, at a minimum, active resistance in a manner that” the officer “reasonably believes may result in injury to themselves or to another person.”  In practice, CBP agents and officers use ECWs against children who are not resisting arrest.

 CBP policy says all CBP officers and agents are supposed to “treat all individuals with dignity and respect.”  Officers and agents are supposed to “speak and act with the utmost integrity and professionalism” and “conduct themselves in a manner that reflects positively on CBP at all times.”  In practice, the documents obtained by the ACLU show many examples of CBP officials verbally abusing the children they arrested, including death threats and threats of other violence.

Further examples of violence found in the documents include:

  • An officer stomping on a child
  • An officer throwing a child to the ground
  • An officer Punching a child’s head 3 times
  • An officer hitting a child in the head with a flashlight
  • An officer hitting a child in the head then kicking the child and yelling at him after he was placed in a patrol vehicle
  • An officer lifting a child by the neck and pushing him against a glass structure
  • An officer kneeing a child in the stomach twice
  • An officer elbowing a child in the stomach, causing him to lose his breath and double over in pain
  • An officer throwing two other minors on top of a child
  • An officer pulling a child to a standing position by his hair, yelling profanities at the child, and throwing the child to the ground, where the side of the child’s face hit a rock.
  • An officer kicking a child in the ribs
  • An officer tasering a child, causing him to fall on the ground before a Border Patrol agent kicked the child in the back while telling the child to get up
  • An officer running over a 17-year-old with a patrol vehicle and then punching the minor on the head and body several times

DHS is required to treat children with “dignity, respect, and special concern for their vulnerability as children” and provide safe, secure, and clean facilities including toilets, sinks, showers, bedding, and basic toiletry.  CBP is also supposed to provide “adequate” food and water to detained children in addition to providing both basic and emergency medical service.  In reality, they do none of those things.

 Most children are only supposed to be in CBP custody for a maximum of 72 hours before being transferred to HHS/ORR.  The reality is that CBP regularly detains children for extended periods of time in excess of the seventy-two-hour maximum.  CBP is also required to provide adequate temperature control and ventilation for detention centers that hold children, but the CRCL documents showed that extremely cold hold rooms are the norm throughout the CVP detention system.

“In 2003, Congress enacted the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to protect all persons in custody from sexual abuse. In 2012, President Obama directed DHS and other federal agencies with confinement facilities that were not subject to Department of Justice (DOJ) PREA rules “to develop and implement regulations to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse and assault.” DHS adopted PREA regulations in March 2014. Thereafter, and as required by these regulations, CBP issued a “zero tolerance” policy regarding sexual abuse and assault for individuals in CBP custody.  Unfortunately, “The CRCL documents show CBP’s failure to comply with its own ‘zero tolerance’ policies, the Flores Settlement requirements, and federal law protecting detainees from sexual abuse or assault.”

 “Among the many other instances of CBP abuse reflected in the CRCL documents are allegations that specific officials:

  • Failed to provide detained children with blankets or provided foul smelling blankets258 or threatened to take blankets away from children, despite freezing temperatures in hold rooms
  • Failed to provide trash receptacles for hold rooms
  • Failed to provide detained children with personal hygiene necessities
  • Verbally abused detained children, calling them dogs and “other ugly things”
  • Told a child who wished to speak to her mother that she “was a prostitute”
  • Tried to coerce detained children to comply with directions by threatening to withhold food or by threatening physical abuse
  • Denied detained children permission to stand or move freely for days, and threatened children who stood up with transfer to solitary confinement in a small, freezing room
  • Told a detained child who had not been allowed to shower for nine days, “if you wanted to shower you should have stayed in your country”
  • Hurried detained children during bathroom runs, and denied children the opportunity to wash their hands or otherwise bathe
  • Placed a child in shackles during transport
  • Distributed only frozen food twice a day, causing the detained children to become ill
  • Denied a pregnant minor medical attention when she reported pain and accused her of lying about her pain in order to be released; the minor’s pains were labor pains that preceded a still birth
  • Told a detained child to “suck it up” when she told agents she had not received food
  • Forced a visibly pregnant minor to sleep on the floor and called her a liar when she said she was pregnant”

The CBP officials regularly misclassified migrant children as adults, in spite of rules that CBP must notify HHS within 48 hours if they suspect or know that an individual in its custody is under eighteen.

 The CRCL documents also showed multiple times when CBP officials threatened or otherwise placed children in stressful situations in order to “coerce these children into ‘self-deportation.’”

 The CRCL documents also found that CBP officials did not safeguard detained children’s personal property, despite agency policy that requires agents and officials to create and maintain an accurate record of all detainees’ property.  Additionally, all items in a juvenile’s possession are supposed to “accompany the juvenile upon transfer to any other agency or facility.”

 Oversight Failures
“Beyond the misconduct detailed, the CRCL documents are shocking for the independent reason that they do not contain any evidence of disciplinary action or other meaningful account­ability for abusive CBP officials. Rather, the records indicate—at best—cursory “investigations” closed out via boilerplate language rather than thorough individualized assessments.  As noted, DHS includes several internal oversight agencies, including CRCL and OIG. Yet structural deficiencies (i.e., limited mandates) and insufficiently robust investigations mean that neither CRCL nor OIG has held the line against child abuse by CBP or the Border Patrol.”

“The CRCL documents reviewed herein represent just a fraction of the tens of thousands of pages of records obtained by the ACLU through its FOIA request and subsequent litigation. These documents provide evidence of systemic CBP abuse of children. At best, this abuse amounts to unprofessional, degrading mistreatment of vulnerable minors. At worst, the abuse amounts to unlawful and potentially criminal misconduct by federal immigration officials. The CRCL documents show that abuse occurs at each stage of a child’s interaction with CBP, from apprehension to detention to deportation. The abuse is not limited to one state, sector, station, or group of officials— rather, the CRCL documents reflect misconduct throughout the southwest, from California to Texas, at ports of entry and in the interior of the United States, by CBP and by Border Patrol. And, crucially, the CRCL documents show that various DHS entities, including oversight agencies like CRCL and OIG, are aware of CBP’s unethical and unlawful abuse of minors—and yet these DHS entities have failed to properly investigate, much less remedy, alleged abuse. There is no evidence that DHS has taken any action to address or rectify this pattern of abuse. To the contrary: the CRCL records indicate that urgent intervention is necessary to protect these vulnerable children from mistreatment, abuse, and violence, which is otherwise bound to recur.”