Immigrant legal services group RAICES said that a record number of young children are being held in Texas detention centers while their families seek asylum.
According to a Friday press release, RAICES stated that staff has seen at least 24 clients younger than 3 years old at Karnes Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. Most are younger than 18 months old, and two are just 1 year old.
RAICES staff said this is the youngest population it has ever documented in immigrant detention, with some clients’ files showing they are as young as five months old.
Even more concerning is most families RAICES works with have documented medical issues. Parents have reportedly received little information about prescription pills they are given, have seen their medical treatments delayed, and in some cases, have had their medication stopped after certain diagnoses.
Staff also added that many families arrive in the United States after traveling in ice boxes and kennels where they contract fever during their travels. Parents expressed concern that their young children may die while in custody if they are not receiving proper medical care.
RAICES is not the only organization that has raised a red flag to what it calls “unconscionable” treatment of infants and toddlers. Whistle-blowers in the medical field and organizations such as the American Immigration Council have sounded off the alarm on the issue.
“According to the government, the increase in the number of infants in its custody reflects an increase in the number of families arriving at our southern border. However, we’ve seen high numbers of families presenting at the U.S.-Mexico border now for years and to date haven’t seen such an uptick in the number of infants held in government custody,” Katie Shepherd, national advocacy counsel for the American Immigration Council (AIC), told Latino Rebels.
Though Shepherd is reluctant to speculate, she did say she finds the government’s reasoning “hard to believe.”
AIC, along with the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network filed a formal complaint on February 28, stating nine children less than one year old were being held by ICE at South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley. At least one child had reportedly been in detention for more than 20 days.
The complaint cited Physicians for Human Rights, who along with other medical experts have advocated against detention of children due to its inherent health risks, which leaves young children especially vulnerable when separated from their parents even for short periods of time.
Shepherd referred to a 2015 case in which 250 children became ill after receiving adult doses of Hepatitis A vaccine.
“A lot of the kids were very ill as a result. When I was on the ground in Dilley, it was a daily occurrence to see children, who were visibly ill. I don’t think it takes a medical expert to be able to say that a child is ill with a fever and a cough,” she said. “There’s also been studies that show children regress as a result of being in detention.”
Shepherd added that since filing the complaint, she learned that there were 17 infants in Dilley at one point, with 15, and possibly 16, released as of February 4.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials told Latino Rebels that family residential centers (FRCs) provide a safe location for families to stay while they await to appear in immigrant court, as indicated by a June 2017 Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s report. They said the agency spends more than $269 million annually on healthcare services for those in custody.
“ICE ensures that these residential centers operate in an open environment, which includes medical care, play rooms, social workers, educational services, and access to legal counsel,” ICE said in a statement. “ICE takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care. ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care. Comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in ICE custody.”
The statement, sent by spokesperson Danielle Bennett, said individuals have access to registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, licensed mental health providers and mid-level providers, including a physician’s assistant, nurse practitioner, physician, dental care and 24-hour emergency care.
But staff at RAICES believe medical care is inadequate at best and lacking at worst.
“There is absolutely no reason why detention centers are still open,” said Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer for RAICES. “We’re working with other groups in Texas and other national organizations to put pressure on Congress to stop funding ICE, stop funding DHS. At the end of the day, they’re funding a growing number of children and families be detained for absolutely no reason, and spending taxpayer money on something completely inhumane.”
She said right now the organization’s greatest priority is putting pressure on ICE to stop detainment of infants and young children.
The organization has a petition up on its website demanding that ICE stop incarcerating infants.
Christine Bolaños is a Texas-based freelance journalist covering government, education, human interest and business news. She tweets from @bolanosnews08.