US immigration and health authorities, facing what they say is a financial and logistical crush, have scrambled to move hundreds of migrant children out of an overcrowded Border Patrol station.
Lawyers who visited the facility last week described scenes of sick and dirty children without their parents, and inconsolable toddlers in the care of other children.
The alleged conditions at the station in Clint, Texas, raised the spectre that hundreds of children - some still in infancy - who had arrived unaccompanied or had been separated from their relatives after crossing the US-Mexico border are being exposed to additional undue trauma as they languish for days or weeks in ill-equipped Border Patrol stations, lawyers said.
A Customs and Border Protection official disputed the allegations, arguing that the child detainees in its custody receive "continuous" access to hygiene products and adequate food while awaiting placement in US shelters designed for children.
The official said that the agency was working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services to move the unaccompanied children to appropriate shelters and that it had cut the number held in Border Patrol facilities from 2600 to less than 1000 in the past week.
The official told reporters that after moving children out of the Clint facility over the weekend and into yesterday, the agency had to return 100 children to the station today because of a lack of bed space in US shelters and insufficient funding to expand facilities for children.
The conditions at the border facilities and lack of bed space have become part of the Trump Administration's argument for passage of its request for US$4.5 billion in emergency appropriations from Congress, a proportion of which is designed to fund the housing of unaccompanied children through private contractors.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters at the White House yesterday that Congress must approve the emergency funding now because the agency has no more capacity to hold children, despite the fact that federal officials said this month they are planning to open three emergency shelters to house approximately 3000 to 4000 children, two on military bases and one at a facility in southern Texas.
"We are full right now. We are full," Azar said. "We do not have capacity for more of these unaccompanied children who come across the border. And what happens is they get backed up there at the Department of Homeland Security's facilities because I can't put someone in a bed that does not exist in our shelters."
HHS this month cancelled recreational and educational programmes for minors in shelters nationwide, saying budget pressures have forced the department to focus just on services that are directly related to the "protection of life and safety."
A spokeswoman for the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) said that by today the agency will have taken custody of nearly 250 unaccompanied children who had been held at the Clint facility, placing them in its own packed children's shelters throughout the country.
A CBP official said Border Patrol agents had transferred another group of children out of the facility and into large tents outside another Border Patrol location in El Paso yesterday before rotating a group back into the station today. Such a rotation is consistent with previous CBP efforts to manage the overwhelming number of migrant children in its detention cells, but the move was unlikely to substantially improve the children's access to basic hygiene, nutrition, care and supervision, lawyers said.
The lawyers' allegations have been submitted to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General to launch an investigation. But the CBP official who briefed reporters today cast doubt on the claims.
"All of the allegations of civil rights mistreatment are taken seriously," the official said, noting that children receive hygiene products and food, including new clothing, hand sanitiser, soap, and water that are "continuously available." Showers are available every three days, or more frequently, when the number of detainees falls to a more manageable level, the official said.
The agency staffs licensed monitors to assist children in feeding and bathing, and 85 per cent of CBP facilities now have medical coverage through contracts with private companies that provide nurses or other trained medical personnel. Pressed on the lawyers' descriptions of some children caring for other dirty, inconsolable children, the official said CBP is doing "everything we can."
CBP officials and lawyers who have visited Border Patrol stations in recent weeks have said hundreds of children are in concrete Border Patrol cells without the specialised care they are afforded under the law because the agency tasked with providing it has run out of space.
ORR is responsible for placing unaccompanied children in special shelters and with foster families, providing the child detainees with access to beds, medical care, showers and educational activities, while also working to reunite them with their parents or other family members.
"The Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they're supposed to be sending these children, is at capacity," said University of San Francisco law professor Bill Hing, who was among the six lawyers to interview children at the Clint facility last week.
Border Patrol's small, concrete cells were designed to hold adults for short periods, not children for weeks. There are no beds or private space. The hygiene is minimal, and the food provided - microwaveable burritos, instant soup and sugary drinks, lawyers said - is basic and poor in nutrition.
"ORR is theoretically set up to release the children safely into the United States. That's what they're staffed to do. CBP doesn't have that capacity. They're all guards," said Hing, who described being moved to tears by the visible trauma of some of the children he interviewed.
"They actually don't have the infrastructure to be calling the aunt or the uncle, or even the parent who is in the United States, and actually check out whether it's a safe place to place the child ... They don't have a staff of social workers, whereas ORR does."
ORR says it has received referrals for 52,000 unaccompanied children since October, including 10,000 just in May. Officials say the ongoing flood of migrant families and unaccompanied children across the southwest border means ORR probably will shelter more children this year than it has in any year in the agency's history.
Critics say the Trump Administration has compounded the humanitarian crisis by continuing to unnecessarily separate children from adult relatives, and through the detention and mass arrests of migrant families and others with no previous criminal history, instead of focusing its enforcement efforts on serious criminals.
"There are so many unaccompanied kids because the US government is ripping families apart at the border when those families consist of children and non-primary or non-parent caretakers," said Clara Long, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, which has documented abuses along the border.
Both ORR and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees arrests, detentions and deportations of migrants have been facing mounting criticism from immigration lawyers, lawmakers and human rights monitors for their treatment of migrant detainees and their management of public funds.
At least six migrant children have died since September after being taken into custody.
ORR has blocked most public access to its children's shelters, which have been plagued by allegations of child abuse and neglect, and questions of inappropriate political influence, and where many of the child detainees wait months to be reunited with family members.