Immigrant-Rights Groups Claim "Systemic Abuse" of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

Immigrant-rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union claim to have documented more than 100 cases of unaccompanied immigrant children being abused by U.S. border authorities.

Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol are supposed to have these minors processed and turned over to Health and Human Services within 72 hours, but these immigrant-rights groups claim it's often taking longer than that, and children have been abused along the way.

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The National Immigrant Justice Center, Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, Americans for Immigrant Justice, Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project and the ACLU Border Litigation Project filed a complaint outlining 116 cases of alleged abuse of children in the custody of Border Patrol or CBP. Representatives for these groups said this morning that such abuses aren't new, but are coming to the forefront with the sudden surge of children showing up without parents to the nation's southern border. These particular cases all took place within the last year.

"These children's stories are horrific," says ACLU attorney James Lyall.

Many of the cases are described individually in the complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security. The complaint summarizes:

Over 80 percent of these children reported inadequate food and water by CBP officials. Approximately half of the children described the denial of medical care. More than half reported experiencing some form of verbal abuse, while approximately one in four reported physical abuse ranging from sexual assault to punching, kicking, and use of stress positions as punishment. One in three reported CBP officials confiscated and did not return money and/or belongings, and approximately 15 percent reported being forcibly separated from family members. Approximately 70 percent of these children were detained by CBP beyond the 72-hour statutory limit.
For the most part, the individual complaints don't identify the facilities where these alleged abuses took place. Ashley Huebner, an attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center, says most of the children didn't know where they were.

However, some of the children who were in the border authorities' custody at different times had very similar complaints.

For example, three different teenagers reported that CBP officers made comments or gestures signaling that the airplane that would transfer them would crash. From the complaint:
E.M. is a 17-year-old child who fled Guatemala after she was raped and impregnated and her family subsequently threatened. E.M. was kidnapped after entering the United States and forced to work before an uncle paid for her release. After E.M. was apprehended near Falfurrias, Texas, she was detained in a CBP holding facility. An officer with the nickname "Mala Cara," or "Bad Face" told E.M., "Welcome to hell." and repeatedly addressed her as "princess." After E.M. complained to other officials, "Mala Cara" treated E.M. even worse. When E.M. was finally transferred to ORR custody, "Mala Cara" threatened, "We're going to put you on a plane, and I hope it explodes. That would be the happiest day of my life."

B.O., a 14-year-old boy, was held for five days at three different CBP detention centers. During that time, he was unable to sleep because the lights were never turned off. As he was being taken to the airport, a CBP official told B.O. and other children that he hoped the children's plane would crash. The official made hand movements and noises to simulate a plane taking off and then crashing.

K.M. is a 15-year-old girl who was detained in CBP custody for four days. The CBP official to whom she disclosed her age accused her of lying. CBP officials did not provide K.M. with food until a full day after she arrived in custody, and denied her the opportunity to bathe. In the hielera, CBP officials woke K.M. and the other children every 30 minutes as they tried to sleep, and K.M. could not keep track of the time because the lights were always left on. CBP officials called her and the other children "sluts," "parasites," and "dogs." When she told an official that the water tasted of chlorine, he replied, "Stupid girl, if you don't like the water put your hands in the bathroom sink and drink from there." She and other girls asked for blankets and were told, "You sluts, why did you come to the U.S.? This is not a five-star hotel. You think because you came to this country we are going to treat you well?" When K.M. and the other detained girls told the CBP officials they were hungry, they cursed and said, "We don't sell food here." A CBP official entered the holding cell eating a Snickers bar and said, "Look sluts, look at me eat." The official added, "Hopefully when you are transferred the plane will crash and you will all die." Officials pressured K.M. to sign a deportation order, telling her that she would be deported anyway. Officials transported K.M. in three-point shackles, which she describes as being painfully tight. Officials also placed two young pregnant women in three-point shackles, despite their cries and objections that the shackles caused abdominal pain.
Some of the organizations involved in this complaint plan on taking some of these cases to court, but acknowledge that route is time consuming. The purpose of the complaint, representatives said this morning, was to try to get this alleged culture of abuse changed now.

The complaint also outlines some suggested remedies that DHS can implement at Border Patrol and CBP, but there's some worry that this complaint will be ignored. The ACLU and others have long called for more oversight at these agencies, and Lyall pointed a recent report by another immigrant-rights group found the vast majority of complaints against Border Patrol don't result in significant action against the offending agent, if any action is taken at all.

The complaint filed today can be found below:

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley