Border processing facilities for migrant children are "stretched beyond thin" and experiencing "profound overcrowding" that make social distancing "impossible," court-appointed monitors said in documents made public this weekend.
The recommendations made to the court could help federal agencies deal with the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the border. The filings were submitted by Dr. Paul Wise and Andrea Ordin, a pair of monitors appointed by a federal judge in California to report on the conditions of minors at US Customs and Border Protection facilities and Office of Refugee Resettlement emergency intake sites under the Flores settlement, which sets national standards for the humane treatment of minors in detention.
On March 30, more than 3,000 unaccompanied migrant children were being held inside the Donna facility, more than 500 of whom were under the age of 12, said the report. About 2,500 of the children had been in custody longer than the 72-hour legal limit, with a "large number" of them residing in the Donna facility or in Border Patrol stations for "as many as several weeks."
Overcrowding inside the Donna facility on certain days was so extensive that "no space remains between sleeping mats," the report said. During Wise's visit in March, more than 500 children under the age of 12 had been held at the facility for more than a week and the caregiver staffing was "profoundly inadequate." Available caregivers had to focus on the highest priority children, particularly very young children with special health needs.
Since March 7, 2021, occupancy at CBP's Donna facility has ranged from 2,200 to 4,500, the report said, well above the pandemic-era capacity of just 500.
"The open spaces designed for walking, reading, or play are also fully occupied by mats. The showers designed for an occupancy of 1,000 are occupied all day, with some children reporting that they did not receive showers for days at a time. Recreation time is attempted during the time individual pods are being cleaned, but the length of time and supervision of the minors varies significantly depending upon the census," the report stated.
Supplies of water, fruit, snacks, diapers, infant formula and other food was determined to be adequate by the monitors.
The observations in the court filings are based on visits made by Wise to Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley between March 7 and 9, including to the CBP Donna processing center and Border Patrol stations receiving families with young children and unaccompanied migrant children.
Between December 2020 and February 2021, Customs and Border Protection saw a 337% increase in the number of encounters with families, according to the court filing. During that same time period, the number of unaccompanied minors encountered by CBP increased by 89%.
After much scrutiny, the Biden administration allowed one pool news camera inside Donna processing facility and a ride along with Border Patrol agents last week. The video captured inside showed children held in overcrowded pods divided by clear plastic sheeting.
CBP did not respond to a CNN request for comment about the court filing.
The monitors noted that ORR's ability to receive unaccompanied children from CBP facilities had been "far too limited to accommodate the rising number" of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border.
Last week, US Health and Human Services spokesman Ken Wolfe said in a statement to CNN that it "aggressively works with its interagency partners to ensure unaccompanied children are safe and unified with family members or other suitable sponsors as quickly as possible."
Wise visited the ORR sites housing migrant children in Midland, Texas, on March 18 and the Dallas Convention center on March 19. The Midland site has received several dozen minors who tested positive for Covid-19 and they were placed in segregated rooms, the monitors said.
The court-appointed monitors recommended, among other things, a more "robust system of interagency coordination" and "adequate professional case management services onsite at Emergency Intake Sites to facilitate rapid reunification with family or sponsors."