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ACLU sues Border Patrol for records covering alleged abuse of migrant children

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona filed a lawsuit against the federal government Wednesday for failing to produce records relating to allegations that migrant children were abused and mistreated while held by Customs and Border Protection.

In December, the ACLU requested documents under the Freedom of Information Act pertaining to alleged or actual mistreatment of children held by agencies under the Department of Homeland Security, as well as documents held by agencies in charge of oversight, said the ACLU.

DHS did not produce the requested documents, the ACLU said in a news release. 

In response the ACLU of Arizona and its affiliate in San Diego filed a federal lawsuit along with the law firm Cooley LLP, arguing that not only does Homeland Security's failure to produce the requested documents violate the Freedom of Information Act, it also "impedes the ACLU’s efforts to educate the public on matters of pressing concern—namely, the mistreatment of children in Border Patrol custody."

"This case is about the systemic failure of multiple institutions to protect some of the most vulnerable among us," said ACLU attorney James Lyall.

"Under any reasonable definition, the neglect and mistreatment that these children experience in Border Patrol custody qualifies as child abuse, and federal officials and contractors are required to report that abuse under applicable child protection laws," said Lyall.

The lawsuit stems from a formal complaint filed by the ACLU on June 11, 2014, on behalf of 116 unaccompanied children who reported abuse and neglect while they were held in Border Patrol custody last year. 

The children reported the use of stress positions, denials of food and water, as well as physical, mental and sexual abuse, and a lack of medical care.

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More than 80 percent reported being denied food or water. One child reported that the only available water was from the toilet tank in her cell. Other children reported being fed frozen or spoiled food and they were ignored when they became ill.

CBP said that it would not comment on pending litigation, however, a spokesperson said in a statement that the agency "holds its employees to the highest standards of ethical conduct and takes any allegations of misconduct seriously and if warranted, takes action immediately."

Agents responded in a "professional and compassionate manner" and the agency used all available resources to "process these children as quickly as possible and transfer them to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services as required by law," the statement said.

"In the face of overwhelming numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the border in South Texas, U.S. Border Patrol agents took extraordinary measures to care for these children while in custody and to maintain security in overcrowded facilities," the statement read.

This echoed a similar statement made in June by spokeswoman Jackie Wasiluk who defended the agency's treatment of minors in an email.

"CBP strives to protect unaccompanied children with special procedures and safeguards" and is using "all available resources to care for unaccompanied children while in CBP's custody," Wasiluk wrote.

"CBP is ensuring nutritional and hygienic needs are met; that children are provided meals regularly and have access to drinks and snacks throughout the day; that facilities include toilets; that they receive constant agent supervision; that children who exhibit signs of illness or disease are given proper medical care," Wasiluk said.

"Mistreatment or misconduct is not tolerated," she wrote.

The influx of unaccompanied minors and family units along the Southwest border stressed the agency, as it rushed to detain and process thousands of children and their parents, a large number of them from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The shift pushed the agency to open ad-hoc processing facilities along the border.

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In New Mexico, the agency used the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center to hold mothers and children and in Arizona, the agency opened a warehouse at the Nogales Border Patrol Station for use as a temporary way point where up to 1,000 children were processed before they were handed over to Health and Human Services and finally to guardians or parents, or temporary care facilities around the country.

In the fiscal year of 2014, Customs and Border Protection apprehended 68,445 people in family units, a nearly four-fold increase from the year before, most of them in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Tucson Sector apprehended 3,812, an increase of nearly 50 percent from 2013.

The agency also apprehended 68,541 unaccompanied minors along the southwestern border, almost all in the Rio Grande Valley. 

In the fiscal year of 2015, the agency said it has apprehended 10,123 unaccompanied minors and 9,090 people in family units, a decrease from the year before.

This isn't the first time that the agency has been accused of mistreatment. 

In late October, the group Guatemala Acupuncture and Medical Aid Project, a public health organization that sends Spanish-speaking health care volunteers to selected villages in Guatemala, presented a 91-page report that argued that Border Patrol violated the civil rights of immigrant families after they were apprehended.

The ACLU has also challenged the federal government around how it proceeds with deportation at the federal training facility in Artesia, New Mexico.

That claim was filed in August and accused the federal government of establishing a "deportation mill"

DHS closed the facility in Artesia at the end of 2014 when it switched to a new facility in Dilley, Texas, where up to 2,400 people will be held while awaiting deportation proceedings. 

The ACLU also filed requests with child protection agencies in Arizona and Texas, seeking records relating to allegations of abuse.

While the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Health and Human Services department, should follow up on allegations the ACLU said it was concerned that officials and contractors have not "consistently reported allegations involving Border Patrol."  

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AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool

Unaccompanied minors in the holding areas at the Nogales Processing Center in June 2014.