Children as young as 3 pressed their faces against the windows of one crowded cell holding nearly 20 migrant girls, some sprawled on the floor. Boys gazed through the fencing of a containment zone exposed to the 38C heat.
Customs and Border Protection authorities on Wednesday allowed a group of journalists on a brief, highly controlled tour of the border station in Clint, a farming town near El Paso, hitting back at reports of filthy and abusive conditions for the children detained inside.
Agents claimed that they were supplying soap and toothbrushes for the children, pointing to shelves with those items in a supply room. (Other shelves held lice repellent shampoo and medical gloves.) They claimed that children held in Clint were not going hungry, pointing to boxes of instant noodles and oatmeal piled near a processing room.
Still, the agents did not allow the journalists inside any of the cells and prohibited any conversations with the detained children, citing government policies. The agency also barred reporters from bringing cameras or phones inside, threatening to expel anyone who did.
"Don't talk to her," one agent said when a reporter saw one girl, who appeared to be 10 or 11 years old, crying uncontrollably while speaking in Spanish with a relative on a phone in a processing room. "If you ask her anything you'll be thrown out," the agent warned.
The facility in Clint is where Customs and Border Protection agents generally take unaccompanied children who are arrested after crossing the border in the agency's El Paso sector, which stretches across southern New Mexico and part of West Texas.
As outrage spread in recent days over the reports about the conditions at Clint, John Sanders, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said he would step down in early July. Authorities also took 249 children housed at Clint to other facilities to relieve overcrowding, but then moved more than 100 children back into the station that had been emptied just days earlier.
Aaron Hull, the chief patrol agent of the El Paso sector, said his officials were dealing with understaffing, a lack of funding and an increase in migration from Central America.
"When we catch more aliens than we can turn over, they tend to build up here in the station," Hull said.
Other agents acknowledged that the relatively clean and uncrowded conditions at the facility were much different than in recent weeks, when hundreds of children filled the facility. Matthew Harris, the official in charge of the Clint facility, said that it had been built in 2012 to temporarily detain about 100 people.
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But in recent months, Harris said, the facility contained more than 700 children at times. The station was designed to detain children for eight to 12 hours, but he said that some children were being held as long as 30 days.
A 1-year-old was currently being housed at Clint with the mother, who is younger than 18, Harris said. He added that the youngest infant who had been held at the station was just 15 days old, detained for a week along with the child's mother.
Altogether, the border station in Clint looked more like a jail or a makeshift camp than a juvenile detention center. In a processing area with nine cells, children peered through windows at the gun-carrying agents milling about.
No books, crayons or even pieces of paper could be seen in the cells; no artwork adorned the walls as it does in shelter facilities where migrant children are held for lengthy periods.
In a place where boys were being held, a caged area that once functioned as the station's sally port, a television played Shrek; a sign on the wall listed indigenous languages spoken by some of the detained children: K'iche', Poqomam, Garifuna.
Agents shuffled the journalists through a limited portion of the facility, and pointed to portable toilets and a basketball hoop set up outside on a gravel lot. The agents did not provide access to outside areas where children have been held.
In a change from previous months, monitors dressed in blue uniforms hired by an outside contractor could be seen supervising some of the children. Harris, the official in charge of Clint, said that Wednesday, the day of the tour for journalists, was also the monitors' first day on the job.
Lawyers who had raised a public alarm after being given access to the station recently had reported that children as young as 8 were caring for infants; they said they saw toddlers with no diapers. But Harris said that the lawyers had not been allowed to see parts of the facility open to journalists Wednesday, but were only allowed to speak with children in a conference room.
The lawyers whose accounts prompted the backlash against conditions in Clint filed an emergency motion Wednesday night seeking immediate inspections of all of the Border Patrol's facilities in the El Paso and Rio Grande Valley regions of Texas.
The motion, filed as part of a federal court settlement that set the standard for the care of detained migrant children, also asks that the Border Patrol be held in contempt for their "flagrant and persistent violations" of those rules.
Earlier in the week, Customs and Border Protection officials had tried to cast doubt on the lawyers' declarations, with one official who spoke under the condition of anonymity telling journalists in a phone call, "I personally don't believe those allegations."
But in their motion, the lawyers submitted 80 declarations from the children interviewed in Clint and in a previous inspection of another facility in the El Paso region, stating that "children are wearing clothing stained with vomit or breast milk," and that "babies are being kept in these freezing cold conditions, and some of them have only a diaper and a T-shirt to wear."
Dr. Dolly Lucio Sevier, a physician who accompanied the lawyers on their visit, likened the conditions to "torture facilities."
The lawyers requested an immediate ruling from Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District of California. Their accounts were also shored up Thursday in a draft report from the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general obtained by BuzzFeed News in which investigators detail many of the same health and safety issues raised by the lawyers who visited Clint.
Asked about the range of poor conditions to which children were subjected under his watch, Hull said that some of the claims of wrongdoing were "hurtful." "We've explained time and time again that we need the resources to do the job," Hull said.
The Republican-held Senate on Wednesday approved $4.6 billion in funding for emergency humanitarian aid along the border with Mexico, rejecting House legislation approved a day earlier that set stronger conditions for how the money can be spent.
The action set up another stalemate over border spending, and continuing uncertainty over how agents on the ground are able to handle the detained children in their care.
Written by: Simon Romero
Photographs by: Ivan Pierre Aguirre
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