One year after the Trump administration officially implemented a policy that led to the separation of thousands of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, there is yet another crisis involving one of the most vulnerable populations: migrant children.
In recent weeks, there have been horrifying reports of unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, and cruelty at immigration detention facilities where migrant children are being held, which has led to widespread outrage. Advocates and lawmakers alike have called these detention facilities "concentration camps" and have demanded that the Trump administration take action.
The reports of what's happening to children in the custody of the U.S. government can often be confusing and upsetting, so we're here to break down what is going on. Ahead, everything you need to know about the detention of migrant children in Border Patrol facilities.
Why are U.S. border detention centers being called “concentration camps”?
The main reason people are calling detention centers “concentration camps” is because of the current health and safety conditions inside these facilities. Debate around whether the phrase is appropriate began after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in an Instagram Live last week: "The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are." Following up on Twitter, she added that the detention centers have "brutalized" migrants, children included, with "dehumanizing conditions."
It’s been widely reported that migrant children have been held in Border Patrol custody for weeks and often without access to adequate food, space to sleep, or even basic sanitary necessities such as soap or toothpaste — in direct violation of the law. The 1997 Flores settlement agreement outlines how kids who enter the immigration enforcement system — either because they arrived in the U.S. unaccompanied or were separated from their parents — should be treated by the government.
The agreement states that they should spend no more than 72 hours in the custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency, which oversees Border Patrol, before being put in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. ORR is then tasked with finding whether children have relatives in the U.S. who can take care of them while their immigration cases are processed.
However, Flores states that as long as they are in custody of Border Patrol, migrant children must be housed in “safe and sanitary” conditions. Advocates and government whistleblowers say that’s not the case.
What is a concentration camp? Is it fair to describe detention centers as that?
A concentration camp is defined as “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard — used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners.”
Many historians have agreed that saying detention centers in these circumstances are “concentration camps” is fair. Historian Anna Lind-Guzik wrote for Vox: “Applying the term 'concentration camp' to the indefinite detention without trial of thousands of civilians in inhumane conditions — under armed guard and without adequate provisions or medical care — is not just appropriate, it’s necessary. Invoking the word does not demean the memory of the Holocaust.”
One distinction that Ocasio-Cortez, historians, and advocates have made is that U.S. immigration detention centers are not the same as Nazi death camps, which were specifically built for the systematic mass murder of the Jewish people.
What are the conditions at U.S. immigration detention centers at the border?
Immigration detention centers across the country have often been condemned for overcrowding, subpar conditions, and inadequate medical services. But the conditions in Border Patrol detention centers, which at times have held more than 2,000 migrant children without their parents, have been particularly dire. Advocates say that children are being kept in facilities that weren’t built with the purpose of holding adults for a long period of time, much less kids, or in "soft-sided" facilities, a.k.a. tents.
According to the Associated Press, children were detained in a holding facility in Texas for as long as 27 days “without adequate food, water, and sanitation.” Last week, a Justice Department attorney argued before a three-judge appellate panel that despite the requirements outlined in Flores, the U.S. government is not obligated to provide migrant children in detention with soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, or beds.
Immigration attorneys also reported the cases of four children, all under the age of three, who were hospitalized after becoming severely ill while detained at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, TX. Earlier this month, attorneys said that a premature newborn baby girl and her 17-year-old mother were neglected for an entire week while detained in McAllen. They claimed the one-month-old infant was wrapped in a dirty towel, wore soiled clothing, and had not received medical attention while in custody. Her mother was wheelchair-bound and had not fully recovered after her emergency C-section.
There have also been reports of migrant children caring for other children because of overcrowding. Willamette University law professor Warren Binford visited a facility in Clint, TX, and told The New Yorker what she witnessed: “The children told us that nobody’s taking care of them, so that basically the older children are trying to take care of the younger children. The guards are asking the younger children or the older children, 'Who wants to take care of this little boy? Who wants to take care of this little girl?' and they’ll bring in a two-year-old, a three-year-old, a four-year-old.”
She added: “And then the littlest kids are expected to be taken care of by the older kids, but then some of the oldest children lose interest in it, and little children get handed off to other children.” Binford also said flu and lice epidemics are breaking out.
How many immigrant children are being held at the border?
Even though Border Patrol facilities are not qualified to detain children for the 72 hours stipulated under the Flores agreement, the government says nearly 2,000 migrant children have been detained at any given time for the past several weeks. (This is without taking into account how many migrant children have been transferred to ORR custody and are being held in facilities not on the border.) The U.S. government has been transferring children from one Border Patrol facility to another, despite concerns over health and safety conditions in centers such as the one located in Clint, TX.
How many children have died in ICE, CBP, or Border Patrol custody?
Since September, six children have died while in immigration custody: 10-year-old Darlyn Valle, 16-year-old Carlos Hernández Vásquez, 2-year-old Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez, 16-year-old Juan de León Gutiérrez, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, and 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gome Last year, a 20-month-old toddler named Mariee Juárez died shortly after being released from a for-profit detention center in Dilley, TX. Her mother Yazmin Juárez has sued the government for neglect.