For years, watchdog groups have issued report after report detailing the brutal conditions faced by children in Border Patrol custody. Since 2008, non-governmental aid organizations have documented at least 1,600 specific examples of children suffering abuse and inhumane environments in the Border Patrol’s detention facilities.

Border Patrol hold rooms are simply not designed for prolonged detention. There are no beds or showers, and detainees are denied recreation. Yet children, including infants and toddlers, are detained in these degrading conditions for days on end.

In June, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and partner organizations submitted a complaint to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on behalf of 116 unaccompanied immigrant children, alleging abuse and mistreatment in Border Patrol custody.

Many reported being denied blankets and bedding and being forced to sleep on the floors of unsanitary, overcrowded and frigid cells.

One quarter of these children reported physical abuse, and more than half reported various forms of verbal abuse. Roughly half of the children reported being denied medical care, including several who eventually required hospitalization. Eighty percent described inadequate provision of food and water, and nearly as many were detained by Border Patrol beyond the legally mandated 72-hour maximum.

Among the grievances the ACLU of Arizona reported in June is the story of a 15-year-old girl who traveled from Guatemala with her 2-year-old son, seeking the support of her family in the U.S. In Border Patrol custody, these two children had no option but to sleep on a cold floor with only a thin aluminum blanket. Both became sick, but this young mother’s requests for medical attention were dismissed for days. Finally, after nearly a week, they were taken to a hospital for treatment.

Federal law defines child abuse and neglect as “the failure to provide, for reasons other than poverty, adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care so as to seriously endanger the physical health of the child.” Under that definition, the experiences of children like the 15-year-old and her son count as abuse.

The Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990 requires federal officials and contractors to report abuse allegations to local child protection agencies, like the Arizona Department of Child Safety, or the FBI. But government records suggest Border Patrol abuse of children is inconsistently reported and investigations are rare. In the face of mounting evidence, the federal government downplays and dismisses allegations that it mistreats children in its custody.

Last week, the ACLU of Arizona filed a lawsuit to obtain public records that will provide a fuller accounting of child mistreatment in Border Patrol custody and the government’s refusal to do anything about the problem. The organization is also seeking records from the child protective services agencies in Arizona and Texas in order to determine what, if any, investigations they have undertaken when presented with children’s allegations of Border Patrol abuse.

With these records, we hope to finally spur state and federal agencies into taking seriously the complaints of children, and the longstanding concerns of child advocates, about Border Patrol abuse.

No matter how you feel about immigration policy or the militarization of our border, there’s no way around it: All forms of child abuse are unacceptable, and we need to do everything we can to stop it.

James Lyall is an attorney with the ACLU of Arizona. He lives and works in Tucson. Contact him at