As unaccompanied minors continue to grow on the southern border, lawyers reviewing conditions for migrant children in US custody are fearful, unable to contact family members, and have limited access to the outdoors.
“What we saw this time was a lot of very young, very scared children,” Leecia Welch, senior director of child welfare at the National Center for Youth Rights, told ABC News White House correspondent Cecelia Vega.
The children, some as young as a year old, were held in a large, overcrowded tent separated by clear plastic, the lawyers said. Some have been held for more than a week, according to the lawyers, awaiting delivery to the Refugee Settlement Bureau of the Ministry of Health and Human Services.
“It only makes it more scary for them because … these are places where no child should be alone,” Welch said in an interview.
Children said they were allowed to go into a courtyard for about 20 minutes every few days, but lawyers said some of them may have walked longer without seeing the sun. The lawyers were not allowed to look into the living quarters themselves and instead based their reports on interviews with more than a dozen children.
Textbooks and notebooks set up desks in a classroom at an influx care facility for unaccompanied children on February 21, 2021 in Carrizo Springs, Texas.
“We recognize the tremendous complexity involved in coordinating multiple agencies and a web of regulatory requirements, but we believe there are ways to overcome these obstacles and, frankly, we believe it is imperative,” said Neha Desai, director of immigration at The National Center for Youth Law, told ABCs Vega in an interview.
When children attempt to cross the border alone and are arrested by the Border Patrol, they are temporarily held in Customs and Border Protection while waiting to be handed over to the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Bureau, which is responsible for housing Children with godparents.
Two customs and border guards who refused to be called to discuss the deliberations between the authorities pointed to HHS as the source of the residue. According to sources with knowledge of the data, there are currently around 8,800 minors in HHS care.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday the current conditions for children are “unacceptable”.
“But I think the challenge here is that there are just – there aren’t that many options,” she added.
At her press conference, Psaki continued to accuse the Trump administration of creating what she said was “dismantled and unprepared” and urged patience while the Biden administration implements its new approach.
“It will take time,” she said.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement opened a new facility on Sunday to help process unaccompanied children before they are transferred to long-term care.
“This approach will help reduce overcrowding in CBP facilities and ensure that children are placed in ORR shelters, where children receive educational, medical, mental health and recreational services, until immediately reunited with families or sponsors “ORR said in a statement.
Homeland Security officials await the arrival of immigrant children and teenagers from the southern United States border at the site of a temporary detention center that opened south of Midland, Texas on Sunday, March 14, 2021.
The Emergency Intake Site, located in Midland, Texas, is a temporary center where minors are processed before they are placed on long-term detention or detention and are partially cared for by the American Red Cross.
“We’ll be filling this place pretty soon,” said a CBP official, referring to the large number of minors currently in CBP detention awaiting transfer.
Independent lawyers tasked with monitoring detained minors reported in court documents Friday that overcrowding in CBP facilities makes detention “unsafe and likely unsanitary.”
In the filing, CBP was asked to officially report the custody numbers and length of detention, and to take additional measures to reduce the number of children in detention.
Migrant children and adolescents from the southern United States border are being processed after entering a temporary detention center south of Midland, Texas on Sunday, March 14, 2021.
“Such efforts should aim to reduce the current massive overcrowding of the CBP facilities by improving and streamlining the available process to achieve the safe and speedy release of all detained minors who do not pose a flight risk or harm,” said the Lawyers who wrote on behalf of the children.
CBP did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News about the conditions for the children in custody.
ABC News’s Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.