Untreated broken bones. Foodborne illnesses from undercooked meals. Outdoor activity limited to the hottest hours of the day, when temperatures regularly hit triple digits.

As the United States vaccinates larger numbers of people and several states begin to reopen after seeing lower infection rates, the failure of U.S. authorities to test adult migrants for the coronavirus in jam-packed border processing centers is creating a potential for new transmissions, public health officials and shelter operators warn, even among migrants who may have arrived healthy at America’s door.


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Originally published by LA Times

Those held at Otay Mesa Detention Center can no longer call a group of activists who help them with money for food and phone calls and listen to their concerns about conditions inside.

CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs the facility, recently blocked calls to phone numbers belonging to Otay Mesa Detention Resistance, an organization that was instrumental in helping detainees share their experiences with journalists and others as the nation’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak among immigration detainees spread at the facility.

CoreCivic confirmed via email that it told the company that operates the phone lines to block the numbers.

We took this action at the direction of our government partner, said Amanda Gilchrist, spokeswoman for CoreCivic, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She directed further inquiry to ICE.

ICE said it blocked the numbers due to safety concerns.

ICE has temporarily blocked detainee calls at Otay Mesa Detention Center to a specific San Diego-area phone number after detainee calls to this number resulted in detainees exhibiting highly disruptive behavior, threatening the health and security of other detainees and employees at the facility, the agency said in a statement early Tuesday. ICE takes very seriously the safety and well-being of those in our care and will take all necessary steps in order to ensure the continued safety of both detainees and staff.

It was not immediately clear to what behavior or incidents the statement referred.

Otay Mesa Detention Center, located in south San Diego, holds ICE detainees who are waiting for immigration court hearings or to be deported. It also holds inmates for the U.S. Marshals Service who are waiting for trials or sentencing in federal criminal cases.

Cristina Malo, part of the Otay Mesa Detention Resistance phone team, said being able to call people on the outside gives detainees hope, in a place that’s very hopeless sometimes.

She said that by having access to her group’s phone lines, detainees are less isolated from the rest of the world and can speak up if their rights are violated.

It’s about holding people accountable to make sure that the detainees are still treated humanely, Malo said.

Alex Mensing of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a group that works closely with Otay Mesa Detention Resistance to support detainees, said his phone number was also blocked. He was able to verify this by calling Telmate, the company that operates the phone lines detainees pay to use.

Telmate declined to comment on the record.

The phone team for Otay Mesa Detention Resistance usually receives calls all day long from people held at the facility, Malo said, but that stopped Wednesday.

At first the team thought something might be wrong with the phones, but the group soon learned that the numbers had been blocked.

Members of Otay Mesa Detention Resistance believe detention centers are not necessary, Malo said.

Once you cage people, those who oversee the people who are caged up start to not see them as humans, Malo said. That’s the danger here.

In April, the organization helped detainees tell their side of what happened after CoreCivic told them to sign contracts that released the company from liability in exchange for masks. Women in one of the housing units said they were threatened with pepper spray, and some said they were sprayed after they expressed frustration at having to sign contracts to get masks, when COVID-19 was already spreading at the facility.

CoreCivic has maintained that no force was used that day. The office of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has called for an investigation into the incident.

Otay Mesa Detention Resistance partnered with several organizations and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez to try to deliver masks to detainees and inmates at the facility. In the end, the groups were not allowed to deliver the masks.

More than 200 detainees and inmates at the facility had tested positive for the coronavirus through the end of May, according to facility documents obtained by the San Diego Union-Tribune. Additionally, 29 CoreCivic employees and nine medical staffers tested positive.

One detainee, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, died after contracting COVID-19 at the facility.

Otay Mesa Detention Resistance said it plans to hold a demonstration Tuesday evening outside of the facility.

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Originally published by LA Times

A federal judge in Los Angeles will appoint an independent auditor to oversee the treatment of children in immigrant detention facilities.

The Friday ruling came a day after the court-imposed deadline for the Trump administration to reunite families separated at the border under its zero-tolerance policy. As of Friday, hundreds of children remained isolated from their parents.

A monitor is expected to be appointed within a few weeks.

Peter Schey, lead counsel and director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, said the monitor will oversee all three family detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement – two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania – as well as Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande sector along the Texas border.

Schey’s group filed a motion seeking an independent monitor for the Rio Grande sector after lawyers observed inhumane conditions there. He said his team will discuss in the coming weeks whether to file another motion asking that the monitor also oversee all other Border Patrol facilities along the border.

The group filed a scathing report last week including testimony from more than 200 parents and children held in California, Texas and other states who described cramped cells without enough bedding to sleep, cold or frozen food and a lack of basic hygiene products.

A Mexican woman said her daughter had wet herself on their first night because there were so many people sleeping in the room that she couldn’t get to the toilet. A Guatemalan boy told attorneys that he had no soap, towels or a toothbrush.

These are problems that appear to be pervasive, Schey said Friday. We’re hoping that that has a salutary effect on Border Patrol operations throughout the southern border. Hopefully they won’t wait until we bring a new motion to expand the special monitor before they will learn from this and correct their ways.

The interviews were done through a 1997 court settlement called the Flores agreement that governs how long migrant children may be held in custody and under what conditions. The settlement allows attorneys to periodically inspect detention facilities that children are held in.

This month, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee rejected the federal government’s request to renegotiate the terms of the Flores agreement to hold children for longer than 20 days.

She ruled in 2015 that the government had breached the agreement by allowing rooms that were cold and overcrowded as well as inadequate nutrition and hygiene.

Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said the agency maintains the highest standards of care for people in its custody.

DHS facilities undergo constant unannounced inspections by outside groups, the Department’s Inspector General and court ordered monitors, she said. DHS take our responsibilities extremely seriously and perform them professionally and humanely.

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Originally published by Politico

Gov. Bruce Rauner this year reported turning a profit from a health care group that services U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, including facilities that hold immigrant families with children.

In his most recent statement of economic interests, the multi-millionaire Republican governor disclosed earnings from a private equity fund that owns Correct Care Solutions, a for-profit health care provider that has millions of dollars in government contracts with jails and prisons across the country, including immigrant detention centers.

The governor said he relinquished investment decisions to a third party and has no direct ties to Correct Care Solutions, a group whose work extends to places like Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, one of just four immigrant family detention centers in the country contracted for profit.

Still, Rauner’s disclosures indicate that he’s earning income from the group, which reports annual revenue of $1 billion.

The financial connection between a sitting governor and for-profit ICE detention contractors is one that immigration rights groups insist is a clear conflict of interest. They also point to Correct Care Solutions’ track record involving dozens of lawsuits alleging wide-ranging negligence.

The debate comes at a time when states are wrestling with how to navigate volatile changes to an immigration system under President Donald Trump. And it takes place as for-profit correctional contractors have seen their earnings soar under the Trump administration’s controversial immigration policies, including one that created a public firestorm over forced family separations.

Rauner, facing a rocky road to reelection this November in this heavily Democratic state, has been reluctant to even mention Trump’s name. While he did speak out against family separations, he didn’t create as much distance from the president’s policy as several other blue-state Republican governors. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan recalled or declined to deploy National Guard troops in response to the policy, but Rauner last month wouldn’t commit to refusing a potential request by Trump to deploy National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border.

Last year, Rauner was strongly criticized by conservatives for signing into law the Illinois Trust Act, a bill limiting local authorities’ role in enforcing immigration laws.

One watchdog group said the third-party management of Rauner’s finances – an arrangement which stops short of a true blind trust – does not inoculate the governor from criticism about financial gain and called on him to divest of any funds involving immigrant detention centers.

Rauner’s campaign told POLITICO he had no plans to do so.

He should not be in any way profiting off of this, said Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, a national watchdog group that monitors privatization and advocates for responsible government contracting. It’s morally reprehensible.

Cohen said even if Rauner’s holdings were in a complete blind trust, making money off of immigration centers puts him in a precarious ethical position, given policy decisions he might have to make regarding immigration and prison privatization.

He is the leader of his entire state. He is participating in it. There’s no other way to say it: You’re making money from that? You are complicit, period. Complicit in the poor care that’s happening in prisons; complicit with what’s going on with immigration in our country, Cohen continued. He should not be investing in anything where he can as a policy maker have to make a decision related to those issues.

Rauner’s financial disclosure does not specify the level of profit from Correct Care, except to say he earned more than $5,000 from GTCR’s Fund X, which owns the company. GTCR, Rauner’s former private-equity firm, raised $3.25 billion in capital for its Fund X and used that money to acquire companies, including Correctional Healthcare in 2012, which later became Correct Care Solutions through a merger.

In 2017, Moody’s reported Correct Care held $1.2 billion in revenue and listed GTCR as among the company’s top co-investors.

The governor’s campaign said Rauner left GTCR before the 2012 health care company purchase. Rauner continued to make money from that decision, and maintained complete investment control until his election.

The governor, who has estimated his net worth at more than $500 million, did not place his expansive portfolio into a blind trust before taking office in 2015. Instead, he executed a power of attorney, authorizing investment decisions to a New York investment adviser, Roundtable Investment Partners. He said at the time that was the furthest he could go while complying with Illinois law requiring economic interest disclosures.

All of Gov. Rauner’s assets are controlled by blind trust procedures and he is not involved in day-to-day investment decisions, Rauner spokesman Will Allison said. Moreover, Gov. Rauner has never had any direct involvement with Correct Care.

While Rauner has established blind trust procedures, there have been been questions over how much control he has actually relinquished over his investment decisions.

What is clear: The level of profits Rauner reported since becoming governor stand out.

During his first year in office, Rauner, who does not accept a state salary, reported $188 million in income, predominantly from investments. That figure, which covered 2015, was more than three times his income the year earlier, when he didn’t hold an elected office.

For 2016, Rauner and his wife reported more than $91 million in state taxable income.

Complicating the connection between the governor and the for-profit health care firm is Correct Care’s spotty record in both jails and immigrant detention centers. That includes a county in Georgia that dropped the company following the deaths of five inmates in just more than two months. In Indiana, a county jail inmate alleges he was denied his cancer treatment. In Maine, the ACLU alleges an 11-year-old boy who has a mental illness, was beaten by local staff then denied medical care.

Correct Care also has a contract at the Karnes center in Texas, where immigrant families have complained they suffered cruelties during their detention.

Correct Care, which did not respond to several requests for comment, has vigorously defended the company’s staffing and quality of care.

Still, the sheer breadth of the allegations has raised the ire of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which says it fears for-profit correctional companies steer their loyalty to their bottom line and not to quality of care. The medical care system has certainly come under a good deal of scrutiny because there have been such tragic outcomes in some cases, said Victoria Lopez with the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

The potential for conflict is apparent in Rauner’s own state, according to a local immigration group.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights has for years sought to expand a moratorium on the privatization of correctional facilities to extend to civil detention, including immigration detention centers.

It doesn’t mean the issue has gone away. We’re trying to figure out the right occasion to revisit it, said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the ICIRR. If we did revisit that issue, then certainly the governor’s financial ties could become an issue.


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Originally published by The Huffington Post

Former and current employees at a federal prison in California that began receiving a group of 1,000 immigration detainees on June 8 are warning that poor medical conditions in the prison in the Mojave Desert complex will endanger detainees, as well as the inmates and staff who are already at risk.

Staff members at Federal Correctional Complex, Victorville, who spoke to HuffPost allege that initial medical screenings of the detainees were rushed and that comprehensive checkups for all the detainees will not be completed within the two-week period that’s standard procedure. They say so far this has resulted in an outbreak of scabies and a case of chicken pox among the detainees, as well as the potential for more widespread infectious disease.

The employees raised concerns about how their understaffed department could be contributing to a lack of screening that could have dangerous, even deadly consequences. And while Victorville stands out, the Justice Department had previously identified inadequate medical staffing as a key issue across the Bureau of Prisons in a 2016 inspector general’s report.

Staffers held a protest outside the prison last week over the arrival of the detainees, holding signs that said, Budget cuts will result in death!

Our medical department, as well as some others, are in absolute need of staff and have been for some time, John Kostelnik, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3969 and a case manager for the prison, told HuffPost. Even before getting detainees, we didn’t have the staffing to provide proper medical care.

Kostelnik pointed to the death of an inmate on June 19. The inmate, who was part of the existing prison population, not a detainee, died by suicide. Kostelnik believes that a more robust monitoring process could have lowered the risk of the inmate’s death.

It’s gone from bad to worse ― there are going to be some detainee deaths, a current medical staffer who corroborated Kostelnik’s account of the death, told HuffPost. This staffer requested anonymity for fear of retaliation after staff was warned not to talk to the press.

The prisoner numbers are in flux, but Kostelnik estimated that about 1,000 detainees joined the 3,500 inmates already at the complex, which consists of a high-security U.S. penitentiary, a low-security satellite campus for female inmates and two medium-security prisons. The detainees are being housed in one of the medium-security prisons. No additional permanent staff were added to assist in their care, Kostelnik said.

A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that detainees were being housed at the facility, as well as at other federal prisons, due to the surge of arrests associated with the implementation of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy on immigrants caught crossing the border illegally. Staff believe the detainees were sent to the Victorville complex not because it was equipped to handle the large number of detainees but because it’s located only a few miles from ICE’s Adelanto Detention Facility northeast of Los Angeles.

What they’re doing to our staffing and budget levels is unconscionable, and is going to result in someone getting injured or killed.Eric Young, national president of the Council of Prison Locals

So far, there has been one reported case of chickenpox among the detainees, which the warden confirmed in a letter to employees. Kostelnik also confirmed another staffer’s report of 10 cases of scabies among the detainees ― two cases of which he had seen himself. All are highly infectious and easily spreadable in the cramped quarters of a prison.

A lack of preparedness for the sudden influx of detainees may be contributing to the spread of disease. The detainees’ clothes were not washed for more than a week, Kostelnik said, making infection more likely. And, against protocol, the prison hasn’t yet supplied shower shoes to the detained immigrants. The language barrier is further complicating efforts to provide proper health care, and although ICE has brought in a phone translation system, staff members say it’s only rudimentary, making it inadequate for medical discussions.

Medical staffers are also worried about a lack of clarity over whether detainees can be sent out for medical care, according to interviews with current employees and medical records. One patient, a detainee with severe abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea, was denied access to emergency medical care at a hospital. While he has recovered, staffers were worried his condition could have been fatal.

Federal prisons have a policy requirement that for every 1,000 inmates, there should be one physician, three physician assistants or nurse practitioners, a registered nurse, one or two medical assistants, two health technicians, and a person focused on medical clerical work. Victorville falls far short.

For its 4,500 current inmates and detainees, there are two physicians ― one of whom is the clinical director ― half of the four required. While there should be 13 physician assistants or nurse practitioners on staff to cover 4,500 people, there are six.

The prison has brought in additional personnel in the wake of the detainees’ arrival ― three that fulfill the role of physician assistants and nurse practitioners, along with one medical clerical worker, but this is still short of the necessary total by four. And there are only three nurses and one vocational nurse, one paramedic and one emergency medical technician on staff ― in total, according to Kostelnik.

This lack of staffing means the medical team feels unable to complete its basic job requirements. Kostelnik told HuffPost that medical staff are being pulled from sick calls, tracking potential infectious disease outbreaks and conducting other important wellness checks to hand out medication at the morning and evening pill line ― a job that should go to lower-level staff.

When asked about the conditions at the prison for detainees with regard to infectious disease risks, the Bureau of Prisons denied staffing was an issue.

The BOP had bedspace available due to the decline in the inmate population over the past several years, and is using existing staff to accomplish this mission, the Bureau of Prisons told HuffPost in an emailed statement. There is sufficient staff at FC1-2 Victorville to serve the population.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement echoed that statement.

ICE is confident in the care and oversight provided by the BOP and believes these are extremely safe and secure facilities for ICE detainees, an ICE official told HuffPost in an emailed statement.

We all know the VA has massive problems medically, and it takes care of the nation’s heroes ― how much political support is there really to take care of the nation’s felons?Former medical employee at the Victorville prison

Staffing issues aren’t endemic to Victorville specifically ― across the board, the Trump administration is in the midst of cutting BOP staff by 14 percent nationwide to reduce costs. In Victorville, that was achieved mostly by cutting vacant positions, Kostelnik told HuffPost.

Eric Young, the national president of the Council of Prison Locals, said the cuts were beyond dangerous.

I’ve been in the Bureau of Prisons for 24 years, and I’m telling you right now, this administration that we have right now, what they’re doing to our staffing and budget levels is unconscionable, and is going to result in someone getting injured or killed, the union leader said.

Young added that we never had this kind of level of custody control and care of this many detainees at once at Victorville.

Rep. Paul Cook (R-Calif.), whose district encompasses Victorville, also expressed concerns over the influx and Victorville’s current staffing levels in a letter sent Friday to BOP acting director Hugh Hurwitz and ICE acting director Thomas Homan.

I urge BOP to increase staffing levels at FCC Victorville to match the increase in population the facility has experienced. Furthermore, I urge ICE to support and train FCC Victorville staff so they are properly equipped to implement policies and procedures that may be unfamiliar to them when dealing with immigration detainees.

A former Victorville medical employee told HuffPost it’s no surprise the situation has continued to devolve, claiming the prison was unsafe medically even before the 1,000 detainees arrived. The former employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the prison had prioritized saving money over patient care.

For the former employee, it boils down to a lack of political will to properly take care of inmates.

We all know the VA has massive problems medically, and it takes care of the nation’s heroes ― how much political support is there really to take care of the nation’s felons?

Other staffers are constantly looking for other jobs to escape the cycle of retaliation they say exists when they complain about unsafe inmate and detainee treatment.

It is the worst kind of callousness to another human being’s life, the current staffer told HuffPost. They could care less about the life of detainees or inmates at this point. They are just like cockroaches to them.

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Originally published by The Washington Post

The young immigrants held in prison-like conditions at a juvenile detention center in the mountains of Virginia express despair. Some cling to pleasant memories from home. For a select few, there is hope.

For a handful of immigrants who came to the U.S. from Central America – many as unaccompanied minors – poetry has given them a chance to tell the world both about their journeys north – and through the byzantine immigration system.

A lot happens in life, most of it sad, an occasional happiness, and sometimes you have no choice but to play the clown and laugh on the outside, even though inside we feel less than failures, wrote one of them in a poem titled The Future.

The collection of poems in American Dream, published last year, was assembled by a Washington and Lee University professor and students who visited the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Staunton, Virginia, lockup and helped the young immigrants put pencil to paper, giving voice to a largely unheard population at the center of an increasingly heated U.S. policy debate.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that immigrants as young as 14 at the center said they were beaten, locked away in solitary confinement for long periods of time and left alone naked in cold cells. Their claims were included in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in October. The AP’s reporting also cited an adult who saw bruises and broken bones the children said were caused by guards. In court filings, officials at the detention facility denied all the allegations of physical abuse, which the lawsuit asserts happened between 2015 to 2018, during both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Republicans and Democrats in Washington said the allegations described by the AP were alarming, and Virginia’s governor on Thursday ordered state officials to investigate the abuse claims.

The writings in American Dream offer another kind of sworn testimony than what is detailed in the court files, said poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, who visited the center last year and worked with the immigrants on their poems.

Every single kid in there acknowledged it was despair without an outlet, it was a dark tomorrow without a voice, he said.

In a poem titled Hi, Love, one of the immigrants wrote: Bitterness, thank you for feeding me and giving me life. Without you I don’t know what I’d be, I’d be someone without emotions, without reason to exist or reason to live.

In an untitled poem, another child wrote about trying to end his life six times.

I don’t know what will happen with my life, wrote yet another teen, in a poem called I have a dream… ”But I don’t worry about that. My life has been a disaster and I don’t think that will change.

None of the poems’ authors is identified and the facility in Virginia was not identified in the book.

Cristina Casado, who manages the Office of Refugee Resettlement program at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, wrote in a postscript of the 111-page book that the children had behavioral or criminal histories and experienced trauma in their home countries. She said, working with these children in a secure environment is a difficult but extremely rewarding experience.

The book’s publisher, Larry Moffi, said that so far American Dream sold about 1,500 copies, and all proceeds from the $16 sales were donated to a Washington legal clinic representing the immigrants in their deportation proceedings.

They were so excited to have this book, Moffi said. The immigrants were given copies of American Dream after it was published last fall. It’s the first book they’d ever had and they’re in it.

Not all the poems dwell on the bleakness of their journeys north and confinement since.

In My Dog Spay, one immigrant wrote about the joy of his long-lost pet.

Being without him now makes me feel like I have nothing in my life, he wrote. And when we see each other he’s going to be so happy he’ll start jumping like crazy.

Another immigrant directly addresses President Donald Trump.

You don’t know what you’re doing/ It’s your fault we’re being booted/ It’s our jobs we’re losing/ Damn fool, why you hassling us, he wrote.

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Originally published by Slate

Horrific stories continue to emerge as a result of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy, which calls for both the prosecution of all people who attempt to illegally enter the country and in many cases long-term separation from the children they bring with them. The crackdown has led to widespread confusion and chaos as immigrants attempt to contact and locate relatives. This week, a tweet from Alex Gil, a faculty member at Columbia, highlighted what he called textures of the national horror: In the absence of information, family members and friends are turning to the public Google and Facebook profiles of detention centers in a desperate attempt to navigate the opaque regulations of ICE detention centers and share what they’ve been through. The ratings and reviews of these facilities paint a vivid picture of what life has been like both inside these centers and for relatives on the outside attempting to get information about their loved ones.

Many posts paint a picture of a capricious maze in which family members, many of whom appear to speak minimal English, feel confused and powerless, searching in vain for legal and research help or basic assistance with things like money transfers or phone calls. Here’s one anonymous comment, translated from the Spanish, on the Google page for IAH Secure Adult Detention Center in Livingston, Texas:

My husband has been there for almost a month and has not been able to call Central America. What can I do to found out how to talk to him? Our baby daughter is sick. Help

Some reviews warn others about particularly cruel employees. Anthony Flores wrote a year ago of the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, California, (translated from the Spanish):

There is an American guard, a very bad person, who gets angry when children want to touch their parents. It seems like she doesn’t understand that they are children …

Wendy Lujan, whose husband was also detained at Adelanto, wrote five months ago:

I have been trying to get the word out about how inhumane Adelanto ICE Processing Center on the west side has been. My husband is currently set there and he has informed me about the way they have not been given medical treatment when needed, it goes for so long that by the time they are given treatment the illness has gotten really bad and the rest of the inmates have been put in quarantine. They are also not been fed at times till 7 PM, and the excuse they give them is that they forgot. They don’t give them toilet paper and when they ask officers for paper one of the officer’s response was What do I look like the toilet paper man. … Please help get the word out. They have no right to be treating immigrants as if they are not worth anything.

Seven months ago, Josefina Hernandez wrote that the detainees at the same center had been on lockdown for at least two months, and weren’t allowed to receive books or make phone calls:

ARE THEY ALOWED TO TAKE AWAY THE VISITING DAYS FROM 3 TO 1. ARE THEY ALLOWED TO CHANGE VISITATION HOURS FROM ONE MINUTE TO THE NEXT … They are detainees not inmates … They should be treated … like adults not animals … This is not a good place.

In many of these reviews, the idea of detainees treated like animals or inmates before being charged with any crime is a common theme. Overall, the prevailing sense is one of desperate confusion and bureaucratic obfuscation-baffling paperwork, fickle visiting hours, muddled procedures that leave detainees and their family members feeling like they are caught within an impossible maze. Two months ago, Michael Baumert wrote of the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Florida, which had detained his fiancee: It’s not good to treat people like this when all they want is a better life than the place they came from.

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Originally published by Yahoo

Immigrant children as young as 14 housed at a juvenile detention center in Virginia say they were beaten while handcuffed and locked up for long periods in solitary confinement, left nude and shivering in concrete cells.

The abuse claims against the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton, Virginia, are detailed in federal court filings that include a half-dozen sworn statements from Latino teens jailed there for months or years. Multiple detainees say the guards stripped them of their clothes and strapped them to chairs with bags placed over their heads.

“Whenever they used to restrain me and put me in the chair, they would handcuff me,” said a Honduran immigrant who was sent to the facility when he was 15 years old. “They also put a bag over your head.”

In addition to the children’s first-hand, translated accounts in court filings, a former child-development specialist who worked inside the facility told The Associated Press she saw kids there with bruises and broken bones they blamed on guards. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to publicly discuss the children’s cases.

In court filings, lawyers for the detention facility have denied all allegations of physical abuse.

Many of the children were sent there after U.S. immigration authorities accused them of belonging to violent gangs, including MS-13. President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited gang activity as justification for his crackdown on illegal immigration.

But Kelsey Wong, a program director at the facility, said during a recent congressional hearing that in many cases the children did not appear to be gang members and were suffering from mental health issues.

The Shenandoah lockup is one of only three juvenile detention facilities in the United States with federal contracts to provide “secure placement” for children who had problems at less-restrictive housing. It was built by a coalition of seven nearby towns and counties to lock up local kids charged with serious crimes.

Since 2007, about half the 58 beds are occupied by both male and female immigrants between the ages of 12 and 17 facing deportation proceedings. Though incarcerated in a facility similar to a prison, the immigrant children have not yet been convicted of any crime.

On average, 92 immigrant children each year cycle through Shenandoah, most of them from Mexico and Central America.

The lawsuit filed against Shenandoah alleges that young Latino immigrants held there “are subjected to unconstitutional conditions that shock the conscience, including violence by staff, abusive and excessive use of seclusion and restraints, and the denial of necessary mental health care.”

The complaint filed by a Washington-based legal advocacy group recounts the story of an unnamed 17-year-old Mexican citizen apprehended at the southern border. The teen fled an abusive father and violence fueled by drug cartels to seek asylum in the United States in 2015.

After stops at facilities in Texas and New York, he was transferred to Shenandoah in April 2016 and diagnosed during an initial screening by a psychologist with three mental disorders, including depression. The lawsuit alleges the teen has received no further significant mental health treatment.

The lawsuit recounts multiple alleged violent incidents between Latino children and staff at the Shenandoah center. It describes the guards as mostly white, non-Spanish speakers who are undertrained in dealing with individuals with mental illness.

In their sworn statements, the teens reported spending the bulk of their days locked in their cells, with a few hours set aside for classroom instruction, recreation and meals. Some said they had never been allowed outdoors.

The lawsuit says poor conditions and verbal abuse by staff often escalated into physical confrontations, as the frustrated children acted out. The staff regularly responded by “applying an excessive amount of force that goes far beyond what is needed to establish or regain control.”

In the case of the Mexican 17-year-old, the lawsuit said a staff member who suspected him of possessing contraband threw him to the ground and forcibly tore off his clothes for an impromptu strip search. Though no forbidden items were found, the teenager was transferred to a unit designated for children who engage in bad behavior.

The lawsuit said Latino children were frequently punished by being restrained for hours in chairs, with handcuffs and cloth shackles on their legs. Often, the lawsuit alleged, the children were beaten by staff while bound.

As a result of such “malicious and sadistic applications of force,” the immigrant youths have “sustained significant injuries, both physical and psychological,” the lawsuit said.

After being subjected to such treatment, the 17-year-old Mexican youth said he tried to kill himself in August, only to be punished with further isolation. On other occasions, he said, he cut his wrists with a piece of glass.

The lawsuit alleges other immigrant youths held at Shenandoah have also engaged in cutting and other self-harming behaviors, including ingesting shampoo and attempting to choke themselves.

A hearing in the case is set for July 3 before a federal judge in the Western District of Virginia.


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Originally published by The Washington Post

When I was at the center at McAllen Border Station, this is the processing center, earlier and I was admitted there and I did see the people, hundreds of children locked up in cages there at that facility. … They have big cages made out of fencing and then wire and nets stretched across the top of them so people can’t climb out of them. …

Every time I probed yesterday on the circumstances, the response was just basically a generic, ‘This is what’s required for security, this is what’s required for control.’ And in a lot of these areas that I saw yesterday morning at the processing center, it’s just a concrete floor and people are being given these space blankets to sleep on. Now, a space blanket is a very thin piece of – the equivalent of foil. And so, obviously, a very uncomfortable situation to be in.
– Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), in a CNN interview, June 4, 2018

When my team called [to request access to a shelter for immigrant children in Brownsville, Tex.], they were told it’s the policy not to admit anyone into these centers and we would not be allowed to enter it.
– Merkley, in the same CNN interview

Sen. Jeff Merkley, a critic of President Trump’s immigration agenda, went down to the border to see firsthand how immigrant families were being treated by federal agencies.

The verdict? Not good. On CNN the next morning, Merkley described a facility in McAllen, Tex., where hundreds of children were locked up in cages. His comments reminded us of some photos that recently went viral, showing children in chain-link fence enclosures at an immigration processing center in Nogales, Ariz.

In the days before Merkley’s trip, some Democrats – including former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama – tweeted pictures of the Nogales facility and criticized the Trump administration for holding immigrant kids in draconian settings.

It turned out the Nogales photos were taken during the Obama administration, in 2014, as several fact-checkers were quick to note. Favreau and Villaraigosa deleted their tweets. But then Merkley said he saw these cages with his own two eyes in McAllen.

We decided to investigate some of the senator’s claims from the border. The Trump administration forcefully pushed back on Merkley’s statements. Let’s dig in.

The Facts
The gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala has led to a wave of immigrants seeking refuge by the thousands in the United States since 2014. Politicians have debated for years how to handle this influx, and the Trump administration announced in May that it would prosecute as many adults apprehended at the border as possible. Although the Trump administration is not the first to separate immigrant children from their parents, the practice is on the rise because of this zero-tolerance policy.

Southwest border apprehensions have been spiking recently, with sharp year-over-year increases for the months of March and April, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Of the nine border sectors stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande sector in Texas consistently sees the highest number of apprehensions for families and unaccompanied immigrant children.

From October to April 30, authorities apprehended 49,622 family units along the U.S.-Mexico border, 61 percent of them in the Rio Grande sector. Out of 26,001 unaccompanied minors apprehended in the same period, 46 percent crossed through the Rio Grande sector.

Minors who are apprehended crossing the border in the Rio Grande sector usually are sent to a central processing center in McAllen. The facility can hold up to 1,000 kids, according to the McAllen Monitor. Children are held at these centers for no more than three days, and then they’re transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, which places them in a temporary shelter and then, eventually, in homes or licensed foster-care facilities.

Those children are being well taken care of, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told radio host Hugh Hewitt on June 5. Within 72 hours, they’re taken to the Health and Human Services to be sure they’re properly cared for.

But Merkley described it on CNN as a very uncomfortable situation. After touring the McAllen processing center, Merkley described hundreds of children locked up in big cages made out of fencing and then wire and nets stretched across the top of them so people can’t climb out of them. He added that in some parts of the facility, it’s just a concrete floor and people are being given these space blankets to sleep on.

We reached out to Merkley’s office to verify his claims and were told the senator and his staff were not allowed to take pictures inside the McAllen facility. But we found photos of the same McAllen processing center that show the chain-link fence enclosures Merkley spotted. The photos were taken by the McAllen Monitor and by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who took his own trip to the border in 2014.

While we can’t corroborate Merkley’s claim that he saw hundreds of children in these chain-link fence enclosures, it seems clear from the photographs we found that Customs and Border Protection does hold children in fenced enclosures at the McAllen facility. Trump administration representatives did not deny this.

These short-term facilities do not employ the use of ‘cages’ to house UACs [unaccompanied alien children], but portions of the facility make use of barriers in order to separate minors of different genders and age groups, an administration official said. This is for the safety and security of all minors in the custody of the United States government.

The official added, It should be noted that DHS was able to accommodate a last-minute request from Senator Merkley’s staff, and the senator’s staff attempted to enter the facility and record children – in violation of their privacy rights.

For what it’s worth, Merkley was let into the DHS facility in McAllen, but staff for Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were not allowed into a similar DHS facility in California with nine days’ notice, according to Menendez.

Merkley said he saw wire and nets stretched across the top of the chain-link fence enclosures. But in the admittedly outdated photos we saw from 2014, it’s difficult to determine whether anything is covering the top. This is key, considering there’s a dispute whether to call it a cage or an enclosure. McGovern’s photos appear to show thin mesh netting on top. The McAllen Monitor photos do not appear to show the same.

Merkley told CNN that he saw only concrete floors and space blankets in some areas of the McAllen facility. The photos we saw show that the enclosures have metal benches inside and what look like gym mats. People were huddling in foil blankets in some of the photos we saw, just as Merkley described.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass., left, tours a processing center for immigrant children in McAllen, Tex., in 2014.)

The lesson here is that, although some of Trump’s critics used outdated photographs from 2014 to attack his immigration policies, the practice of holding children in chain-link fence enclosures continues. Merkley may not have pictures to back up his claim, but the Trump administration says it uses barriers, and other pictures of the same McAllen facility bear out much – but not all – of what the senator claimed.

This is an enormous warehouse with chain-link fencing, said Astrid Dominguez, director of the Border Rights Center at the ACLU of Texas. I’ve been there when the numbers are high, and I’ve been there when the numbers are low, and I’ve seen kids and parents in there.

‘It’s the policy not to admit anyone into these centers’

Merkley also visited a facility in Brownsville, Tex., where the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and a contractor, Southwest Key Programs, run a shelter for immigrant children waiting to be placed with relatives or in a foster-care program.

These children are under staff supervision at all times and spend an average of 51 days in ORR shelters, according to HHS figures. In 85 percent of cases, the children are then resettled with their parents or close family members in the United States.

Merkley wanted to know what it was like inside the Brownsville shelter, and he streamed his visit on Facebook Live. But all viewers got to see was Merkley arguing outside a strip mall with people who denied him entry.

This is a former Walmart that has been turned into a center for children, Merkley says in the video. So, behind those doors inside that Walmart are apparently many hundreds of children.

He continued: Last week my team contacted this program, and they contacted the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and said that Senator Merkley, that’s me, was going to be here and would like to go inside and see what’s going on, and they said no. I think it’s unacceptable that a member of Congress is not being admitted to see what’s happening to children whose families are applying for asylum.

On CNN the next day, Merkley added: When my team called, they were told it’s the policy not to admit anyone into these centers and we would not be allowed to enter it.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Trump administration official told The Fact Checker that Merkley’s staff requested access to the Brownsville facility on Friday evening, less than two days before he arrived.

HHS responded explaining it has a process in place that requires the visiting member of Congress to fill out and submit the proper paperwork two weeks prior to the desired visit, the official said. Two weeks is requested to ensure the proper federal government employees are on site to provide the tour, rather than the non-federal, grantee staff.

Since at least 2015, HHS has had a policy requiring two weeks’ notice for anyone trying to visit a shelter. Requests should be submitted two weeks prior to the visit, the policy says. Requests not received within this time frame may be considered if there are exigent circumstances.

So, it’s clear that Merkley was off-base when he said it was HHS policy not to admit anyone into these centers. He might have been allowed access to the Brownsville facility had he submitted his request with two weeks’ notice instead of two days’.

The Department of Health and Human Services takes the legal mandate to care for these children seriously, an HHS representative said in a statement. No one who arrives unannounced at one of our shelters demanding access to the children in our care will be permitted, even those claiming to be U.S. senators.

Responding to this, a spokesman for Merkley, Ray Zaccaro, said: HHS knew that we were coming. They chose to deny access to a U.S. senator to a federally funded facility. The assertion that this visit was unannounced is categorically false. The HHS statement also said Merkley along with five other individuals, attempted to enter an unaccompanied alien children’s (UAC) shelter unannounced and broadcast live via social media last night in Texas. But Zaccaro said he was the only staff member with Merkley and that the other four individuals were members of the press who attended on their own.

What about the claim that HHS never lets anyone into these shelters? That one smelled like Pinocchios to us. Zaccaro said Merkley’s staff asked for an expedited approval, which HHS has discretion to give under its policy.

Senator Merkley’s staff was told of their policy when we requested the site visit, Zaccaro said. Our staff explained in turn that the senator required expedited approval for access to this facility in order to fully understand the scope and impact of the current family separation crisis. Our staff explained to the agency that he would be visiting the Brownsville Southwest Key facility on June 3 and expected to be able to inspect the facility.

But that’s not the same as saying that the policy is not to admit anyone. Again, HHS has a whole procedure for these visits. There’s no blanket prohibition.

It’s worth noting that Merkley’s border tour appears to have struck a nerve in the White House. Without addressing specifics about shelters or processing centers, White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said June 4 that Merkley was irresponsibly spreading blatant lies.

The Pinocchio Test

The way Merkley described the CBP facility in McAllen – hundreds of children in cages with only concrete floors to sleep on – sounds like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. It’s indisputable that immigration officials hold kids in chain-link fence enclosures for up to 72 hours. Whether this setup is as draconian as Merkley made it seem is not something we were able to verify.

Merkley’s other claim, that HHS has a policy of not allowing anyone to visit its shelters for immigrant children, is false. The nuanced explanation his spokesman provided us does not match the blanket claim Merkley made on CNN.

We were on the fence between Two and Three Pinocchios. As our readers know, the burden of proof is on the speaker. But Merkley and his staff were not allowed to record their tour of the McAllen facility. This leaves us with some photos we found from 2014 that prove some but not all of the senator’s detailed and sensitive claims. We can’t really hold it against Merkley if he tried to get visual proof but was barred from doing so.

However, his staff knew that HHS had a process to grant access to the Brownsville shelter. By the time the senator went on CNN to say no one was ever allowed to visit, he almost certainly knew better. Because of this obfuscation, we settled on Three Pinocchios.

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