Fort Bliss: Biden administration responds to report of inhumane conditions for migrant children at emergency shelter in Texas

Activist defending the rights of migrants holds a protest near Fort Bliss to call for the end of the detention of unaccompanied minors at the facility in El Paso, Texas, U.S, June 8, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
Activist defending the rights of migrants holds a protest near Fort Bliss to call for the end of the detention of unaccompanied minors at the facility in El Paso, Texas, U.S, June 8, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
  • In court filings, migrant children at a federal shelter in Texas complained of inhumane conditions.
  • Children said they were given rotten food and were unable to sleep in overcrowded tents.
  • The Biden administration said it is working to improve conditions.
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The Biden administration is defending its handling of migrant children seeking asylum following testimony this week from young people and federal employees alike alleging poor conditions at an emergency intake facility in Texas.

“We take our humanitarian mission and the well-being of children in our care seriously,” said a statement emailed to reporters on Wednesday by Sarah Lovenheim, assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

In court documents filed this week, migrant children suggested that commitment was lacking, complaining of severe depression caused at least in part by excruciating conditions at shelters such as the one at Fort Bliss, a US Army base in El Paso, Texas.

The facility was first used to house detained migrants during the Trump administration.

In response, HHS, which runs the site, says it has increased the number of case managers at such sites by 95%, from 909 to 1,776 as of May 21. At the same time, it has also reduced the number of children in detention at Fort Bliss, from around 5,000 to 1,500, and elsewhere: there are fewer than 15,000 children in HHS custody today, compared to nearly 23,000 at the end of April.

A 13-year-old girl from Honduras said she was placed on suicide watch after spending two months there.

“The food here is horrible,” she testified. “Yesterday we were given hamburgers but I couldn’t eat it because there was a foul odor coming from the bread.”

The child also described suffering insomnia due to the conditions, per the legal filing.

“It is really hard for me to sleep because my cot is right next to a light that stays on all night,” she said, adding that a request for sleeping pills had been denied due to her age. “For the past week or so I have only been sleeping during the day.”

In its statement, HHS insisted children are “receiving nutritionally-appropriate meals.”

“Our goal is to safely and expeditiously unite children with their parent or sponsor and we continue to improve and streamline this process,” it said.

Another 17-year-old girl at the same facility, however, described overcrowded conditions even with the decrease in the number of children there, with hundreds of girls sleeping under the same tent.

“A lot of the girls here cry a lot,” she testified. “A lot of them end up having to talk to someone because they have thoughts of cutting themselves.”

Federal officials, concerned about deteriorating mental health among the children, “banned pencils, pens, scissors, nail clippers, and regular toothbrushes” inside of such tents, CBS News reported.

“They’ve gone from a small cage at Border Patrol to a larger cage at Fort Bliss,” a former employee there told the outlet. “It’s a juvenile detention facility.”

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