After dozens of reports came to light about appalling conditions at the southern border, a federal judge in Los Angeles has ordered the government to do something about it.
The reports paint an appalling picture. Thousands of migrant children - including infants, pregnant young women and nursing mothers - detained in squalid conditions at the southern border, denied basic sanitation, adequate nutrition and access to proper medical care. The conditions have been compared to "torture facilities" and concentration camps, described by one human-rights expert as a "mass atrocity."
Changes may finally be afoot, however.
A federal judge in California recently ordered the government to grant public health experts immediate access to Border Patrol detention facilities. She also required the government to submit to mediation with an independent mediator, who is tasked with helping to develop a swift plan for improving the conditions among migrant children. The judge set a deadline of July 12th for the initial status report on these efforts.
Squalid and inhumane conditions
Prior to the ruling, immigrant advocates had filed dozens of sworn statements describing conditions at the detainment facilities. They shed light on widespread inhumane treatment: Children going hungry. No provisions for bathing or grooming. Kids taking care of other kids. Nursing mothers becoming dehydrated. Lights left blazing 24/7. Insufficient access to medical care. Illness running rampant.
The lack of medical care alone has incited uproar. Without adequate medical screenings, early signs of sickness are getting overlooked, leading to hospitalizations and even deaths.
Basic standards of care
It might seem like commonsense that the federal government should uphold the basic human rights of minors held in Border Patrol custody. In fact, the scope of that duty has been the subject of debate - at least among Justice Department officials seeking to protect limited government resources.
The crux of the debate involves a consent decree called the "Flores Settlement Agreement." Signed by the federal government in 1997, it establishes basic standards of care for minor children in immigration custody. Among those standards, it requires the government to:
- Detain minors under the "least-restrictive" conditions possible for their situation
- Maintain "safe and sanitary" detention facilities
- Offer adequate food and water
- Provide clothing and grooming items
- Ensure proper supervision of minors
- Allow contact with family members
- Provide access to medical care
- Promote swift release and reunification
The U.S. is also a signatory to several international human rights treaties concerning the conditions of detainees.
The government's reaction
Far from accepting accountability for the deplorable conditions, the government's stance has largely been one of denial, and the legal strategy has been delay.
The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General recognized overcrowded conditions in detention facilities along the southern border. Nonetheless, Border Patrol officials insist that the reports of inhumane conditions are overblown. They gave reporters a sanitized tour of the detention facility in Clint, Texas.
Meanwhile, a Justice Department lawyer appearing before a federal appellate court panel not only acknowledged that the children lacked access to soap, toothbrushes, beds and blankets; she argued that those conditions met the definition of "safe and sanitary" under the Flores Agreement.
In response to advocates' request for an emergency order to improve detention conditions, the Justice Department asked for more time to give the government an opportunity to respond. A former chief of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics slammed these delay tactics, calling them "horrifying" and monstrous.
Customs and Border Protection officials have acknowledged that the conditions are far from ideal. The agency simply isn't equipped to house a large influx of migrant children. Whether, how and when improvements might be made, however, appears to be up for debate.