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Migrant children are languishing at an Army base for "alarming" periods of time

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Posted at 9:50 AM, May 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-22 11:50:40-04

As of last week, nearly 600 migrant children had spent 40 days or longer at a sprawling military base in west Texas that the U.S. government has converted into an emergency site for unaccompanied minors, according to data obtained by CBS News.

More than 50 of those children had been housed at the Fort Bliss U.S. Army base longer than 45 days. Overall, nearly 1,700 unaccompanied girls and boys had been there for at least a month as of May 14, according to the government data, which was shared with lawyers representing migrant minors in a landmark court case.

Democratic Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, who toured Fort Bliss on Friday, said she spoke to some migrant children who had spent 48 days at the military installation, the largest of more than a dozen emergency facilities the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has set up to house unaccompanied migrant youth.

Escobar, who represents the El Paso district where Fort Bliss is located, called the prolonged stays "alarming."

"I'm not a fan of the mega-sites. I think that they are not conducive to what we need to be doing for kids," Escobar told CBS News. "I acknowledge these are emergency intake facilities but there are children who have been in there for long periods of time."

Fort Bliss — which Escobar said was holding approximately 4,500 unaccompanied minors on Friday — has come under increasing criticism from advocates for migrant children. Unlike traditional HHS shelters for migrant children, the military base and other emergency sites are not licensed by state authorities to care for minors and have lower standards of care.

Field guidance obtained by CBS News concedes the emergency facilities "are not designed or intended to provide the full range of services available at traditional" shelters. Services like phone calls, case management, legal counsel, recreation and education are not mandatory when opening these sites; though HHS says the facilities should make them available "as soon as possible and to the extent practicable."

According to lawyers who interviewed them, migrant children housed at Fort Bliss have reported subpar living conditions and services, including limited access to showers, clean clothes and case managers, the officials responsible for reuniting them with family members in the U.S. The children there sleep on bunk cots inside large tents that house hundreds of minors.

Leecia Welch, one of the lawyers at the National Center for Youth Law who interviewed children held at Fort Bliss, said minors described feeling sad and desperate at the facility, noting that girls told her they would sleep all day because there was little to do. Some children reported talk of self-harm and suicidal thoughts among other youths, Welch added.

Escobar, the El Paso congresswoman, called the mental health of minors held at Fort Bliss a "great concern" for her.

"One young boy — and it just broke my heart — told me how depressed he is. And of course he's depressed," Escobar added, saying more mental health services are needed at the military site.

Antony, 16, said he spent 25 days at Fort Bliss after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The Guatemalan teen said his time inside the military base was "not very good," noting he was constantly bored. "We were trapped. We would only go to the bathroom and return to the cots," Antony told CBS News on Friday.

Antony said he was never allowed to call his mother, who he had not seen in over 15 years. "They told me there were too many kids and they didn't give me any phone calls," he said. "I was sad, not knowing how she was."

The teen said the food offered at the base was better than the semi-frozen burritos distributed by Border Patrol. However, he said he was not able to speak to a case manager for three weeks, even though his mother was willing to sponsor him, making him a priority release case. Antony said he was released within three days of talking to a case manager.

According to government documents obtained by CBS News, HHS has been working to increase capacity at Fort Bliss to be able to house up to 10,000 minors there, including 5,000 "tender age" children, a term for kids younger than 12.

Escobar said Fort Bliss is now ready to house 10,000 minors if need be, but noted she has told the White House and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra that a better alternative is to place children in separate, smaller facilities.

"I'm not, in any shape or form, saying that we should not have up to 10,000 kids, if needed, here in El Paso. So, this is not about not having them in El Paso or not having them on Fort Bliss. In fact, in many respects, the Fort Bliss site has been really helpful," she said. "My point is that you shouldn't have 5,000 children in one mega-site past the emergency situation."

Escobar also said the site should not house children under the age of 12. "I think there's wide unanimity that that should not happen," she said.

While she expressed other concerns about Fort Bliss, including its laundry services, Escobar noted the site is more appropriate for children than Border Patrol facilities, which were dangerously overcrowded earlier in the spring before HHS set up 13 emergency sites.

After holding a record 5,800 unaccompanied children in late March, Border Patrol, which is not supposed to hold migrants for more than 72 hours, has dramatically reduced the number of lone minors in its custody, housing less than 700 as of Friday morning, according to government data.

Meanwhile, HHS was housing more than 19,000 unaccompanied children as of Friday morning. The department is charged with housing these minors until it can place them with sponsors in the U.S., who are typically family members like parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.

Escobar said conditions inside Fort Bliss have improved substantially since she first visited the facility in early April. She noted the children have ample access to healthy food, including fruits. She also commended the Biden administration for moving minors out of ill-suited Border Patrol facilities and for listening to her feedback.

"While there is improvement that is needed, I'm so grateful to have an administration that is open to my constructive criticism and my ideas," Escobar added, saying her feedback was typically met with "pushback" and "rigidity" under former President Trump.

In a statement Saturday, HHS said some emergency sites, including Fort Bliss, are not at capacity and could "temporarily and safely house more children — if needed — as we work to unify children with parents and sponsors." The department said it is working to ensure children have adequate care and services at the makeshift shelters, noting it has already closed two emergency facilities that were not able to improve conditions.

HHS said it has placed nearly 31,000 of the 49,000 migrant children it has received since President Biden took office with family members and sponsors.

"Our goal has always been to get children through this process as quickly as possible and into the arms of vetted parents or legal sponsors, and that's what we are doing as we continue working around the clock to lower the amount of time that children spend in our care," HHS said in its statement.

Last week, an HHS official said the emergency sites are a "temporary, stopgap mechanism" to prevent migrant children from languishing in Border Patrol custody, adding that the department wants to close them in a "gradual way."

HHS has not allowed journalists to tour its so-called "emergency intake sites," despite multiple requests from CBS News.

Overall, HHS has also reduced the time children are spending in its facilities and increased its release rate. According to the HHS official, migrant minors are spending about 29 days in the department's care before being released, compared to the 42-day average in late January.

On April 23, 16-year-old Antony reunited with his mother in Los Angeles. Braulia, his mother, said she didn't have a chance to get to know her son because of their lengthy separation.

"I was very happy," said Braulia, who was helped by Every Last One, a non-profit that works with migrant children. "I'm not the only mother who has had to leave their children in our home countries. It's a sacrifice we make to give them a better future."