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Lawyer: Inside an immigrant detention center in South Texas, 'basic hygiene just doesn't exist'

Immigrants held in a McAllen-area U.S. Customs and Border Patrol processing center for migrants — the largest such center in America — are living in overcrowded spaces and sometimes are forced to sleep outside a building where the water “tastes like bleach,” according to an attorney who recently interviewed some of the migrants.

"It was so bad that the mothers would save any bottled water they could get and use that to mix the baby formula,” attorney Toby Gialluca told The Texas Tribune on Saturday.

But when she recalls the conditions described to her by the immigrants she interviewed at McAllen’s Centralized Processing Center, Gialluca said she goes back to one thing.

“Their eyes. I'm haunted by their eyes,” Gialluca said.

Gialluca and a slew of other lawyers have been meeting with children and young mothers at facilities across the state this month as pro bono attorneys. At the McAllen center, Gialluca said, everyone she spoke with said they sought out Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande so they could request asylum.

Gialluca said the migrants, all from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, told her they aren’t receiving proper medical care and children don’t have enough clean clothes. Unable to clean themselves, young mothers reported wiping their children’s runny noses or vomit with their own clothing, Gialluca said. There aren’t sufficient cups or baby bottles, so many are reused or shared.

“Basic hygiene just doesn't exist there,” Gialluca said. "It’s a health crisis ... a manufactured health crisis," she said.

The stories she recounted echoed conditions at immigrant facilities across America detailed in two recent government reports and a bevy of media stories. They offer glimpses into life inside taxpayer-funded shelters that one member of Congress compared to concentration camps.

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That has sparked intense debate among politicians and activists as the government grapples with how to respond to a crush of immigrants fleeing Central America in hopes of seeking asylum in a country whose president won office in part by tapping into many voters’ fierce opposition to illegal immigration.

Overhauling the country’s immigration laws has vexed Congress for decades. But President Donald Trump said Saturday he would move forward with planned deportation sweeps in cities across the country in two weeks if lawmakers from both parties don’t fix what he called loopholes at the U.S.-Mexico border and in the country’s asylum process.

More than 144,000 migrants were apprehended or denied entry to the country last month — the largest number in 13 years. More than half of them were families with children, and about 8% were unaccompanied minors. Last month, Texas shelters held more than 5,800 migrant children.

Texas has about 50 Border Patrol stations spread across its roughly 1,200-mile border with Mexico, and government mandates state that migrant children shouldn’t stay at these processing centers for more than 72 hours. But with a recent surge of migrants, mainly families from Central America seeking asylum, people are often detained for days and weeks at a time.

The agencies responsible for housing the migrants after they arrive — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which handles adults, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which handles minors — have been swamped by the influx.

To deal with the continuing surge, the federal government has been erecting tent complexes near Border Patrol stations in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso, and converting U.S. military bases and other buildings into makeshift emergency shelters. Federal officials plan to convert a compound in Carrizo Springs that once housed oilfield workers into an emergency shelter for 1,600 unaccompanied minors.

The Trump administration recently canceled English classes, recreational programs and legal aid for unaccompanied minors at shelters across the country, citing budget pressures. And in court Tuesday, an attorney for the Department of Justice argued that the government shouldn’t be required to give detained migrant children toothbrushes, soap, towels or showers.

State Rep. Terry Canales, a Democrat from Edinburg, wrote to the Border Patrol on Saturday asking for a list of items the public could donate to make up for shortages. Canales said Border Patrol told his office it does not accept donations.

Public officials at all levels of government and from both sides of the political aisle have called the influx of immigrants a humanitarian crisis. On Friday, Texas’ top three elected leaders, all Republicans, announced they were deploying 1,000 additional National Guard troops to help at temporary holding facilities for single adult migrants and to help federal agents at international ports of entry. They also pressed Congress to reform the country’s immigration laws.

On Saturday, state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, issued a letter to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission inquiring about the reportedly inhumane conditions at a Clint facility where another group of lawyers told the Associated Press about a group of 250 infants, children and teens who spent nearly a month without adequate food, water and sanitation.

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Attorneys who visited the El Paso-area station said they found at least 15 children sick with the flu and described a sick and diaperless 2-year-old boy, whose “shirt was smeared in mucus,” being taken care of by three girls, all under 15.

“HHSC has a responsibility to these children and individuals to ensure they are receiving, at a minimum, basic care,” Alvarado wrote, acknowledging that the facilities are managed at a federal level but still imploring the state to do more. “As these facilities are in our state, the conditions under which they operate is a reflection of our values and commitment to the humane treatment of all within our borders.”

In late May, an El Paso processing center was the subject of a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, which detailed severe overcrowding in holding cells. In one photo, a migrant’s hand is pressed against the glass of a cell that was designed to hold 35 people — 155 people were crowded inside. In another, 76 women are crouched side-by-side on the floor in a cell designed for 12.

Gialluca said a 16-year-old mother that she met at the McAllen facility had an 8-month-old daughter who wore only a diaper and a pastel tank top covered in “filth.” The mother told the attorney that guards took away her backpack full of baby clothes and medicine and sent them to sleep outside on the concrete.

Gialluca said the pair were both ill, congested and coughing, and described the baby as “lethargic.” All of the babies were lethargic, she said.

"Sick babies are [supposed to be] crying … and these kids were just … silent."

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Bob Daemmrich/The Texas Tribune

An attorney says people held in a McAllen-area U.S. Customs and Border Patrol processing center for migrants face unsanitary conditions.