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Law Professor Describes Poor Conditions Where Migrant Children Are Held


Migrant children are being held in grim and dangerous conditions at detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border. That's according to lawyers who visited the facilities in recent days and spoke with children there. One of those lawyers is Warren Binford, a professor at Willamette University, who described for us what she saw.

WARREN BINFORD: Many of them are sleeping on concrete floors, including infants, toddlers, preschoolers. They are being given nothing but instant meals, Kool-Aid and cookies - many of them are sick. We are hearing that many of them are not sleeping. Almost all of them are incredibly sad and being traumatized. Many of them have not been given a shower for weeks. Many of them are not being allowed to brush their teeth except for maybe once every 10 days. They have no access to soap. It's incredibly unsanitary conditions, and we're very worried about the children's health.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She visited the facility in Clint, Texas, and the family holding center at Santa Teresa in New Mexico. Her team has been doing inspections like this for over 20 years. And I asked her how this one compared.

BINFORD: This was, by far, the worst situation that I've seen not just by the conditions but by the sheer number of children who are being kept at this facility and being kept in really dangerous, unsanitary conditions. Literally, one of the children said that, currently, there are 100 children in his cell and that when he first arrived there, there were 300 children in the cell. I drove around the outside of the compound to try and find out what he was referring to. And it is a metal warehouse that was set up recently that Border Patrol said increased their maximum occupancy from 104 adults to 600. We know that they do have over 350 children there as of Monday when we arrived and that over a hundred of these children were young children. We saw no windows in the warehouse. And the children reported that they seldom get to go outside. One child reported that the highlight of their day is that when they come in to clean the cell, the children are able to go out in the hallway. And that's the highlight of their day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: These sound worse than actual prison conditions.

BINFORD: They are worse than actual prison conditions. It is inhumane. It's nothing that I ever imagined seeing in the United States of America. And that's why we have gone to the press. We never go to the media about our site visits. And after the second day of interviewing these children, you know, we called up the attorneys who are in charge of this case. And because of the extreme conditions that we saw there, we were given permission to speak to the media because children are dying on the border in these stations. And now we know why.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Trump administration officials this week argued in court that these children may not require basic hygiene products like soap and toothbrushes to be held in safe and sanitary conditions. What do you make of that argument?

BINFORD: Well, you know, obviously, any person with common sense knows that that is just absurd. You know, the World Health Organization has indicated that by simply practicing handwashing that you can reduce infant mortality by 50%. These particular children are being kept in cells with open toilets. It is the same space where these children are spending 24 hours a day. So basically, these children are being forced to eat, poop and sleep and live in these cells with other children who are sick. There is a lice infestation in at least one of these cells that multiple children have reported to us. And they're being given lice combs to pass around. The entire situation is absurd. And there is nothing safe or sanitary about the conditions that we witnessed this week.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The administration says that the children are in these conditions because of the crisis at the border because they're overwhelmed by the number of families and children coming in to the United States. How do you respond to that?

BINFORD: If you look at the historical numbers of immigrants coming to the United States, we are nowhere near the highest number of immigrants that we have coming to the United States. But what we're seeing with this population is that over 70% of these children have sponsors in the United States. And most of those sponsors are parents or other family members. And instead of placing these children with their family immediately, they are detaining these children unlawfully. So really, what the government's supposed to be doing is moving the children through these facilities in a matter of hours, moving them through the other facilities in a number of days and then placing them with their families immediately. But that's not what this administration is doing. They're holding on to these children at a cost of $775 a day per child. And that's basically what is creating a backlog.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned that it is unusual for a lawyer like yourself to speak publicly. I want to ask you why you felt it was important to step forward.

BINFORD: Many of the children that we interviewed are the same exact ages of my children, you know, who are ages 9 and 16. And so it's impossible, really, to meet with these children and not understand how the parents are feeling about their children - not knowing where they are and how they are. There was one moment in another facility where we were this week where a father had been separated from his children. And we told the Border Patrol that we'd like to meet with the father and his family together. And he was able to see his children for the first time since they had been separated. And the little girl jumped into her father's arms and yelled, papa, papa, and immediately started crying. It was at that point that I had to turn away because I couldn't help but, you know, cry at that point. So we do the best that we can to hold it together. But sometimes, it's just impossible. And this was one of those weeks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Warren Binford is a law professor at Willamette University. And she recently visited children in border detention facilities.

Thank you very much.

BINFORD: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined our interview requests, saying, quote, "all allegations of civil rights abuses or mistreatment in CBP detention are taken seriously and investigated to the fullest extent possible." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.