More than 100 immigrant children experienced abuse and mistreatment while in custody, civil- and human-rights organizations said in a complaint against U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Examples included in the allegations made to the Department of Homeland Security said some children reported being molested by adults with whom they were detained. Others said they were exposed to a barrage of insults from officers as well as being accused of lying.
“We are coming forward now with more than 100 complaints, but we believe thousands of children have been subjected to these conditions,” said Joseph Anderson, director of litigation for Americans for Immigrant Justice.
“Although the surge of unaccompanied exacerbates this problem,” he said during a telephone conference with reporters, “it predates this problem.”
The organizations, which include the American Civil Liberties Union Border Litigation Project and the Arizona-based Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, urged the federal government “to conduct a prompt and thorough investigation into each of these allegations,” which they say are part of systemic abuse of unaccompanied children by Customs and Border Protection.
The complaint includes cases of 116 children interviewed from March through May, who said they were abused or mistreated in some form by Customs and Border Protection officials.
- More than 80 percent of them reported inadequate food and water.
- More than half reported experiencing some form of verbal abuse.
- 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 confiscated and did not return money and/or belongings, and about 15 percent reported being forcibly separated from family members.
One 17-year-old boy described being forced to kneel and hold hands against the wall of the holding cell for about 20 minutes as punishment for laughing.
A 15-year-old girl reported that one of the girls she was detained with said she had been raped inside a cave by a CBP official but was afraid to come forward to make a complaint because he had threatened her.
The 25-page complaint released to the public includes summaries of 40 cases that the legal-service providers said happened roughly in the last year and are representative of what they see in general. The children’s identities and full details of their complaints were provided to the DHS.
In an email statement, CBP said it strives to protect unaccompanied children, and mistreatment or misconduct is not tolerated.
“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,” the agency said.
All the organizations had filed complaints before regarding some of these issues but hadn’t received a response.
CBP removed its head of internal affairs this week after scores of allegations of sexual abuse and the use of excessive force by agents along the border.
A few of the organizations also said they have pending litigation on behalf of some of the youths, but they said that takes time and changes need to happen now.
“It’s more powerful to present all of these cases together,” said James Lyall, attorney with the ACLU Border Litigation Project, especially given the urgency of the situation.
The federal government is supposed to transfer children into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours.
But due to more than 47,000 children — many of them from Central America — having been apprehended so far this fiscal year, the agency has run out bed space.
About 70 percent of the 116 children and youths included in the complaint said they were detained for more than 72 hours.
The legal-service providers said the actual number of cases of abuse is much larger. Two of the organizations interviewed children who reported abuse while being in CBP custody but didn’t want to file a complaint for fear that it would impact their immigration cases negatively.
“It’s further proof that CBP is an agency in need of massive reform,” Lyall said. “This should be the final straw.”
The complaint comes as the federal government grapples with a surge of children crossing the border illegally without parents or guardians.
“The vast majority are fleeing some type of gang violence,” said Erika Pinheiro, with the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles. “Many are preteens or in their midteens who are intensely recruited into gangs.
There’s been an increase of younger children and females, she said, many who have been victims of sexual violence.
Arizona U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake sent a letter to President Obama Tuesday urging that he make clear that there are consequences for illegally entering the United States.
“While a number of factors are influencing the nature of recent illegal crossings, the narrative of lax enforcement of our immigration laws is certainly a significant contributor,” the letter read.
“Few in the world are listened to as closely as the president of the United States. While resisting the temptation to take further unilateral action on immigration enforcement, the present situation begs your best efforts to make clear that there are consequences for illegally entering the U.S.,” it said.