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Rights groups: Border Patrol abusing minors held in custody

More than 700 unaccompanied children held in Nogales warehouse

Thousands of children who reach the United States after perilous journeys from Central America may still suffer abuse at the hands of agents with the U.S. Border Patrol, according to a formal complaint filed Wednesday with the Department of Homeland Security by five immigration rights groups. 

Government officials didn't directly address the allegations, but said that border agents are using "all available resources" to care for undocumented minors who are found without their parents.

"Mistreatment or misconduct is not tolerated," a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday.

Citing the use of stress positions, the denial of food and water, as well as physical, mental and sexual abuse, and a lack of medical care, the complaint focused on 113 cases of unaccompanied minors who have crossed into the United States in the last year. 

Of the unaccompanied minors the groups interviewed, 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. 

Children also reported being held in cells when the lights were always on, sleeping on plastic sheets, and reported they were often freezing or subjected to extreme heat in their cells. The issue of cold cells has become so notorious that officers and prisoners call them "hielera" — "coolers" in Spanish. 

One seven-year-old boy, developmentally disabled and unable to speak or walk was held for five days in Border Patrol custody and was so poorly cared for that when he was turned over to the custody of Health and Human Services officials, he was immediately taken to a children's hospital where he had two emergency surgeries and stayed for more than 42 days, according to Joseph Anderson, director of litigation for Americans for Immigrant Justice.

Other incidents from the report:

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D.G. is a 16-year-old Central American girl. Shortly after (Customs and Border Protection) arrested her, officials mocked her and asked her why she did not ask the Mexicans for help. When they searched her, officials violently spread her legs and touched her genital areas forcefully, making her scream. D.G. was detained with both children and adults. She describes the holding cell as ice-cold and filthy, and says the bright fluorescent lights were left on all day and night. D.G. became ill while in CBP custody but when she asked to see a doctor, officials told her it was “not their fault” that she was sick and ignored her. CBP officials did not return all of D.G.’s personal belongings when she was released.

***

After CBP transferred 15-year-old K.M. to ORR custody, K.M. reported that one of the girls with whom she was detained was covered in bruises on her chest and face. The girl initially claimed her injuries had occurred when she fell. When pressed, however, the girl admitted that when she was apprehended, a CBP official took her into a cave and raped her. The girl said that she was afraid to come forward or make a complaint because the CBP official threatened her.

***

J.P. is a 13-year-old boy who was arrested with his 8-year-old sister near Hidalgo, Texas. J.P. and his sister were brought to a holding cell and then separated. J.P. spent three days in the first holding cell where he was detained with other adult men. He states that when he and other boys would cry, the officials would yell at them to stop because there was “no mother there” to comfort them. When J.P. tried to get a CBP official’s attention, the official threatened to hit him with a metal rod. The official then threatened the children not to tell anyone what had happened.

After the third day, J.P. and his sister were brought to another holding facility. In the holding cell at this facility, J.P. was accosted by two adult men who told him they would “eat him up” while he slept. Other men in the cell warned J.P. to watch out for the two men because they liked “chubby boys.” Later, the two men J.P. had been warned about sexually molested him by touching his genitals after J.P. had fallen asleep. The men molested J.P. again the following night. J.P. repeatedly tried to report the abuse to CBP officials, but they ignored him. J.P. continues to feel afraid when he remembers what happened to him.

***

G.G. is a 16-year-old girl. When Border Patrol agents apprehended her in Texas, they threatened to kill her if she moved or ran away. When she told the agents her age, they yelled, insulted her, and called her a liar. An agent told her, “Your little scheme won’t work to keep you here in the U.S.” CBP detained G.G. for nine days, in five different detention centers. G.G. was extremely hungry, and CBP officials gave her moldy bread. She became ill and believed it was because of the food. When she asked for something to settle her stomach she was told “this is not a hospital.” When she vomited, officials accused her of being pregnant and called her a “dirty liar.” When G.G. asked the time of day, officials replied, “What do you care? Are you late for work?” G.G. slept on the floor of her cell with a thin sheet of paper for a blanket every night. The bathrooms were filthy— the floors were covered with used sanitary napkins and soiled toilet paper, and there were no garbage cans, no doors, and no privacy. The only water available to G.G. to drink came from the bathroom sink. Officials repeatedly told her, “You’re the garbage that contaminates this country.”

The complaint was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, National Immigration Justice Center, the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, and the Americans for Immigrant Justice.

CBP didn't directly address the allegations in the complaint.

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"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," spokeswoman Jackie Wasiluk wrote in an email.

"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 groups said abuse is common.

"The sheer volume and consistency of these complaints reflects longstanding, systemic problems with CBP policy and practices," the report read. 

Unaccompanied minors, thousands who have overwhelmed Border Patrol officials in the Rio Grande Sector in Texas, have been flown across the country in an attempt to quickly process them within the 72-hour window created by law. But the complaint notes that at least 29 children were kept beyond the legal window before they were handed over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. 

In Nogales, Ariz., more than 700 children are being held in a warehouse that is currently serving as a processing station. More processing stations have been brought on line in California and Oklahoma and federal agents operate temporary facilities for children across the nation. 

"The reason we all got together, we've been complaining about this for a long time and litigation does take time. There's a real urgency," said Anderson. 

"This is by no means the potential universe of these complaints," said Erika Pinheiro, directing attorney for community education programs at Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project.  "Many organizations do not have the resources to follow through with complaints and once children are released from custody, the agency doesn't follow-through." 

Pinheiro noted that once children have been released from custody they lose their access to legal counsel though they may continue to be in deportation proceedings. 

Pinheiro notes that many unaccompanied minors avoid filing a complaint fearing that doing so would affect their immigration case.

"There's a culture of abuse and impunity in the agency," said James Lyall, ACLU of Arizona staff attorney for the ACLU Border Litigation Project. 

This isn't the first time that the Border Patrol has been accused of abusing people in the agency's custody. 

In 2011, the group No More Deaths released a report that relied on interviews with nearly 13,000 people, gathered between 2008 and 2011, who were in held in Border Patrol custody. According to those interviewed, Border Patrol agents routinely refused to offer food and water, and migrants suffered overcrowding, extreme cold and heat, and unsanitary conditions. 

Last year, a project called the Migrant Border Crossing Study also noted serious problems with the treatment of people in the custody of Border Patrol agents. 

In May the American Immigration Council found that only about two percent of complaints against agents were followed up by action from the agency. 

On Monday, the head of internal affairs with CBP was ousted because he failed to assign enough investigators to look into complaints about the agency's of the use of force, and was replaced by an agent with the FBI. 

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Paul M. Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Undocumented children ride a bus entering the Nogales Border Patrol Station on Sunday.

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