RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Three hundred and fifty migrant children holed up in a U.S. government facility with bad food, no basic hygiene or much adult supervision - that's according to lawyers who visited them in a West Texas Border Patrol facility. After a lot of public outcry, yesterday the Border Patrol relocated most of those kids from those barren and squalid conditions to other government facilities. NPR's John Burnett has been following this story closely, and he is on the line from Austin this morning.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Can you tell us more about the conditions that these children were living in in this particular facility?
BURNETT: Sure. Just imagine what a drunk tank in a city jail might look like, with chain-link walls, concrete floor, no cots, an open toilet - this is how these lawyers found 350 children, from ages 17 down to infants who can't walk. They were inside of holding cells in a Border Patrol station in little town of Clint, just outside El Paso. Three hundred and fifty kids in a space with a capacity for 104, sleeping on concrete floors, no soap, no showers. Some have the flu. And some of the children as young as 8 years old were trying to care for little babies.
One of the visiting attorneys who sounded the alarm is Elora Mukherjee. She spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro yesterday.
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ELORA MUKHERJEE: We interviewed many children who said that they were hungry. They were obviously dirty. They were sick. They were scared. And they'd been detained by Customs and Border Patrol for weeks on end, some for nearly a month.
MARTIN: So, John, the law says these children are not supposed to be detained for longer than 72 hours. So what happened?
BURNETT: Exactly. The Border Patrol said what they'd been saying for months basically - they operate short-term holding facilities designed for grown-ups, not for these vulnerable populations of children. And they point fingers at Health and Human Services, which is the agency that's supposed to take custody of immigrant children within those 72 hours. But HHS has the same problem. They say their shelter system is overtaxed, and they can be slow to accept more kids.
Of the lawyers who visited Clint - said the maddening thing is that these children had been classified as unaccompanied minors, yet many of them crossed the border with a family member, such as an aunt or an older sibling. And they say those kids should have been allowed to stay with their relatives. But federal agents, under policy, separate kids from any adults who are not their parents or legal guardians.
MARTIN: And the government's justification for that is that they say they're trying to prevent child trafficking, right?
MARTIN: And they can't be sure that these guardians, that their motives are pure. So what happens to these kids now?
BURNETT: Well, Veronica Escobar, the El Paso representative in whose district the Border Patrol station is located, says most have been relocated to other facilities in the region, and eventually they'll be transferred to child shelters, and most will be reunited with family here in the U.S. while they await a court date. Understandably, there's been an outcry, Rachel, and not just from Democrats; Vice President Mike Pence called the conditions totally unacceptable.
And all eyes are on Congress now. They're expected to vote this week on a $4.5-billion supplemental funding bill for homeland security that's supposed to help the whole government deal with this wave of migrants, and the kids in Clint will certainly get their attention.
MARTIN: But this has not just happened, right? This has been an ongoing crisis. We've seen facilities overstretched for months now. So why hasn't the government been prepared?
BURNETT: Well, the Border Patrol, again, says it just can't handle the numbers of migrants crossing the Rio Grande. I mean, late last month, a single group waded across the river; it had more than a thousand people. That's a record. So the Border Patrol is putting up these big emergency tents with air conditioning and decent facilities to eat, sleep and use the bathroom. But they just can't build them fast enough, so you end up with these nightmarish stories.
MARTIN: NPR's John Burnett for us.
Thanks so much, John.
BURNETT: My pleasure, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.