TUCSON (CN) - As the border region swells with unaccompanied immigrant children from Central and South America, many of them face cold concrete cells, hunger and thirst, painful shackles and verbal and physical abuse from Customs and Border Patrol officers, immigrant-rights advocates said Wednesday.
A recent wave of immigrant children who made the long, dangerous journey alone from their home countries to cross the border in Texas, often fleeing gang violence and sexual exploitation, has caused overcrowding in short-term detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley.
Nearly 1,000 children were transferred recently to a holding facility in Nogales, Ariz., and President Barack Obama called the influx "an urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated federal response."
While the recent crisis has focused national attention on the plight of unaccompanied children, a coalition of immigrant-rights groups said they have heard reports for years of inhumane and illegal treatment of immigrant children by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials.
"Over and over again when we speak to these children they tell us about the incredibly dangerous and often traumatic journeys that they took to get to the United States, and how they hoped when they reached the U.S. Border they would find safety and protection here, but instead these children had that hope shattered by Customs and Border Patrol abuse and mistreatment in detention," Ashley Huebner, managing attorney of the Immigrant Children's Protection Project at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said in A conference call with reporters.
Huebner's group, along with the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, Americans for Immigrant Justice, Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project and the ACLU Border Litigation Project, sent an administrative complaint to the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday documenting 116 cases that they say "paint a consistent picture of widespread abuse and mistreatment."
The groups interviewed about 1,000 children between the ages of 5 and 17 who had been detained in Texas this year, and found that about 80 percent of them had been provided "inadequate food and water."
The children reported being detained in cold concrete rooms, which detainees and guards alike call hieleras
, Spanish for "freezers." The cells have no bedding or bathing facilities, and children said they were forced to use the toilet in front of other detainees and officers.
The complaint tells of one child "whose only available drinking water came from a toilet tank and others who received only frozen or spoiled food and subsequently became ill."
"Approximately half of the children described the denial of medical care," the complaint states. "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."
Federal law requires unaccompanied minor immigrants to be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours of being captured.
Many of the children reported that a Border Patrol officer had tightened their shackles after they complained that they were too tight.
In one case, "a child reported that an agent 'hit him on the head with a metal flashlight 20 times, kicked him five times, and pushed him down a hill.'"
A young girl reported that "when she was apprehended, a CBP official took her into a cave and raped her," the complaint states.
Another girl said that Border Patrol officers "repeatedly told her, 'You're the garbage that contaminates this country.'"
About 80 percent of the unaccompanied children are fleeing some kind of "violence, persecution or instability" at home, Erika Pinheiro, directing attorney for community education programs at Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, said during the conference.
Often the girls have been raped by gang members and the boys have been threatened by the same people for not joining, she said.
"The dire conditions in their home countries cause many children to embark on the hazardous journey to the United States, traveling by bus, atop freight trains, and on foot," according to the complaint. "Along the way, unaccompanied children are vulnerable to numerous forms of exploitation and violence, including rape, robbery, assault, kidnapping and extortion. Sometimes these children's journeys end in tragedy before they reach the United States. Once at the U.S. border, children face the same hazards as adult border crossers. Children interviewed ... witnessed other children drown while crossing the Rio Grande River, while others wandered for days in the desert without food or water."
Joseph Anderson, director of litigation for Americans for Immigrant Justice, said the recent surge of unaccompanied children crossing the border is only the latest crisis in an ongoing problem that won't be solved until CBP reforms.
"Although we are coming forward now with more than a hundred complaints, the fact is we believe thousands of children have been subject to these conditions, and while the surge in number unaccompanied minors crossing the border exacerbates this problem, it's a pre-existing problem," he said. "Change is required immediately."
ACLU of Arizona staff attorney James Lyall said that this complaint "should be the final straw" for the CBP.
Lyall has sent several administrative complaints to DHS recently documenting numerous complaints about out-of-control CBP agents in Southern Arizona and elsewhere, and said he has received mostly silence in return.
He said these most recent findings are "further proof that CBP is an agency in need of massive reform."
The CBP this week replaced the head of its Internal Affairs Office with FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Inspections Mark Morgan, a move hailed by immigrant-rights advocates, according to The Associated Press.
In response to Wednesday's complaint, CBP Spokesman Michael Friel said that the agency "does everything within its power to process these children as quickly as possible in order to transfer them to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours absent exceptional circumstances."
"CBP is ensuring nutritional and hygienic needs are met; that children are provided meals regularly and have access to drinks and snacks throughout the day; that facilities include toilets; that they receive constant agent supervision; that children who exhibit signs of illness or disease are given proper medical care," he said in an email. "Mistreatment or misconduct is not tolerated."