Life Inside U.S. Migrant Detention Centers

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A U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention center for undocumented immigrants sits idle on March 15, 2017 next to the U.S.-Mexico border in Donna, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention center for undocumented immigrants sits idle on March 15, 2017 next to the U.S.-Mexico border in Donna, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Broken bathrooms. Expired food. Severe overcrowding. We look at conditions at U.S. detention centers.


Astrid Galván, border and immigration correspondent for the Associated Press. (@astridgalvan)

J.J. Mulligan Sepúlveda, immigration lawyer working at the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California Davis School of Law. Author of "No Human Is Illegal: An Attorney on the Front Lines of the Immigration War."

Life For Children In The Detention Centers

Galván: "It's pretty bad, in terms of the number of people and the ability to have them in safe, not crowded conditions, especially when it comes to children. Children are a vulnerable population. It might be easier for an adult to stand in a detention center for a few days, but that's a whole different story for a child, and so I think both the government and the advocates will tell you that the situation is quite dire."

On the detention center for unaccompanied minors in Homestead, Florida

Mulligan Sepúlveda: "When I visited in February there were still around 1,800 kids or 2,000 kids, and it was just so crowded that you can't even imagine where they would possibly hold more kids, but now it's close to 3,000 people apparently. There were rooms with 144 bunk beds and when you walked by the bunk beds you could barely get by. They're just shoulder-length apart. They separate siblings. If one sibling is 17, and the other is 13, they separate them on other sides of the facility, and they only see each other once a week. At times, they've used solitary confinement. It's a really tough place to be. In one instance, it was a trans youth, and they said it was for her own protection. I believe it was 10 days. Isolation included 10 days not leaving a room without a window. There's a fine line between protection and suffering.

"I think we've seen from the beginning that the Trump administration has used mistreatment as a a form of deterrence, and when that's the main plan then things like overcrowding and incredibly unsanitary conditions, the idea is that that will get back to people fleeing their countries and trying to come here, and that will work as a sort of metaphorical wall. ... It becomes this awful game of chicken where the government's just making conditions worse and worse and not caring about it, and immigrants are still coming because the conditions in their home country that are pushing them here have not changed."

'There Is No Easy Way To Get Into Our Country Legally'

Galván: "The reality is that there isn't a front door. It's not like it used to be. It's incredibly difficult. It takes years and years and a lot of money to come into the United States legally. People who are coming here are fleeing emergency situations. They don't have time or money to get in. And I'll add that there are people who are trying to come in what was referred to as the front door. There are thousands, and thousands of people waiting on the Mexican side of the border, waiting to seek asylum, and the government isn't letting them in. I think that's a general misconception, maybe misunderstanding, about how our immigration system works. There is no easy way to get into our country legally."

"Isolation included 10 days not leaving a room without a window. There's a fine line between protection and suffering."

J.J. Mulligan Sepúlveda

From The Reading List

Associated Press: "Doctors will conduct health checks at facility with preemie" — "The teenage girl with pigtail braids was hunched over in a wheelchair and holding a bunched sweatshirt when an immigrant advocate met her at a crowded Border Patrol facility in Texas.

"She opened the sweatshirt and the advocate gasped. It was a tiny baby, born premature and held in detention instead of where the advocate believes the baby should have been — at a hospital neonatal unit.

"'You look at this baby and there is no question that this baby should be in a tube with a heart monitor,' said Hope Frye, a volunteer with an immigrant advocacy group who travels the country visiting immigration facilities with children to make sure the facilities comply with federal guidelines."

"Frye and other advocates said the case highlights the poor conditions immigrants are held in after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as the government deals with an unprecedented number of families and children arriving daily. They announced Friday that doctors would be able to do health assessments at that facility starting Saturday."

Time: "Overcrowding and Food Shortages, Migrants Complain of Conditions at U.S. Holding Centers" — "The Trump administration is facing growing complaints from migrants about severe overcrowding, meager food and other hardships at border holding centers, with some people at an encampment in El Paso being forced to sleep on the bare ground during dust storms.

"The Border Network for Human Rights issued a report Friday based on dozens of testimonials of immigrants over the past month and a half, providing a snapshot of cramped conditions and prolonged stays in detention amid a record surge of migrant families coming into the U.S. from Central America.

"The report comes a day after an advocate described finding a teenage mother cradling a premature baby inside a Border Patrol processing center in Texas. The advocate said the baby should have been in a hospital, not a facility where adults are kept in large fenced-in sections that critics describe as cages."

PBS NewsHour: "Homeland Security watchdog slams conditions at ICE detention facilities" — "The Homeland Security Department’s internal watchdog says rotting food, moldy and dilapidated bathrooms and agency practices at immigration detention facilities may violate detainees’ rights.

"The Office of Inspector General made unannounced visits to four facilities in California, Louisiana, Colorado and New Jersey between May and November of last year, according to a report published Thursday. The facilities together house about 5,000 detainees.

"In an Adelanto, California detention facility, inspectors found nooses in detainee cells, the segregation of certain detainees in an overly restrictive way and inadequate medical care, the report said.

"It comes as the Trump administration is managing a worsening problem at the U.S.-Mexico border, with a dramatic increase in the number of Central American migrants. While most are families who cannot be easily returned to their home countries, the number of single adults is also on the rise. Immigration officials are detaining an increasing number of single adults — about 52,000 now — but are funded for only 45,000. The administration has asked for $4.5 billion more for additional bed space."

Buzzfeed News: "Medical Care For Immigrants Is Only Getting Worse At An ICE Detention Center, Advocates Say" — "A year after immigrant advocates made US authorities aware of poor medical and mental health care at a Colorado detention facility, conditions have only gotten worse, according to a new complaint filed Tuesday.

"The new administrative complaint, obtained by BuzzFeed News, was submitted to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Office of Inspector General. It detailed stories of immigrant detainees who received inconsistent medication, suffered delayed medical care, and faced threats of punitive segregation following suicide attempts.

"The supplemental complaint follows a similar one the American Immigration Council and American Immigration Lawyers Association submitted in June 2018 on behalf of immigrants detained at the Denver Contract Detention Facility (DCDF) in Aurora, Colorado, who endured 'pain, serious injury, or the risk of death.' "

Grace Tatter produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on June 20, 2019.

This program aired on June 20, 2019.



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