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Human Rights Watch Researcher On What She Saw Inside Facility Holding Migrant Children


The acting head of Customs and Border Protection is resigning, effective early next month. Now, this comes after reports that unaccompanied migrant children were living in horrifying conditions at a CBP holding facility in Clint, Texas. Visiting lawyers describe the kids being sick, dirty, hungry and scared. Older children were taking care of younger ones they'd just met. CBP disputes this characterization, but it did move some of the children out of the facility over the past few days. We're joined now by one of the attorneys who visited that facility, Clara Long of Human Rights Watch. Welcome to the program.

CLARA LONG: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Help us understand how basically kids who are toddlers right are unaccompanied minors. What happened there?

LONG: A lot of kids, especially very small kids who are traveling to the U.S., are traveling with relatives - an aunt, a grandmother, an uncle - and a lot of times these relatives are the primary caretakers of the child back in their home country. But U.S. policy is to separate those kinds of families at the border through the immigration system.

CORNISH: As we mentioned, you were one of the attorneys who actually visited the facility in Clint, Texas. Tell us what you saw.

LONG: Right. We don't have access to the actual cells under the terms of the settlement, but what we can do is speak with the children. So they brought us, you know, a roster, list of kids, and we just started pulling the youngest kids, the kids we believed to have been there for a very long time, the kids who were there with small babies of their own. And what they told us was really disturbing. They said, you know, they were being held in overcrowded cells. Some kids didn't have beds. Some kids didn't have mattresses. They were getting the same, you know, bland and unhealthy food every day. They weren't allowed to bathe regularly or brush their teeth. Even young kids who really needed active care, like diaper changes, were being taken care of by older kids in the same cell.

CORNISH: We've talked about some of these kids being moved out of the facility in Clint, Texas. But we know the number of them was upwards of 300. So where are they now? Are you hopeful that immigration authorities will be able to place them in a shelter where their needs can be met?

LONG: Well, I think it's been positive to see some movement on this, but I want to make sure that people understand that Clint is not even probably the worst of Border Patrol stations that I visited. Border Patrol custody is inappropriate for children. And as far as we understand from the agency right now, there are still up to a thousand kids in Border Patrol custody awaiting placement in Office of Refugee Resettlement. And so whether they're in Clint or whether they're in somewhere else, that's an enormous problem.

CORNISH: What has it been like doing this work, I mean, trying to talk to kids about what they're going through, right? They're in an adult situation.

LONG: Yeah.

CORNISH: Like, do they even know really how to describe it?

LONG: It's been heart-wrenching. You know, I'm a parent. I have a have an almost 3-year-old, and I, you know, had to try to interview some kids about that age over the last week and even kids a little bit older. One in particular who sticks out of my mind was a 7-year-old who, you know, I asked one question - who'd you come to the U.S. with? She said, my aunt, and then she just broke down in tears and couldn't really say anything else.

CORNISH: The government is basically making the argument that they want to make sure that they connect kids with their proper legal guardians. I mean, is that in conflict with trying to protect them?

LONG: It is absolutely the government's responsibility above all to reunify kids with parents where that's appropriate and where that's in their best interest. What really worried me about speaking with kids on the border who had been held for, as I said, weeks in the Clint detention facility was that there has no evidence that anyone was making any efforts to reunify these kids with parents. I personally started tracking down parents where I could to connect them with their children. And in every case, they had had no idea where their child was, and no one had contacted them.

CORNISH: That's Clara Long, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LONG: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.