Conditions at McAllen Processing Center Prompt Concerns
MCALLEN - Unannounced inspections conducted by a group of attorneys in mid-June at the McAllen Processing Center led to the hospitalization of four migrant children.
Now, conditions inside two Texas immigrant processing centers operated by Customs and Border Protection are under scrutiny.
Immigration attorneys who conducted the inspections believe the facilities are out of compliance with standards set through court decisions.
CBP officials offered members of the media a guided tour Monday to show current conditions and limitations to housing migrant families, children, and single adults.
This follows a temporary restraining order filed Wednesday by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law.
The group ensures governmental compliance to standards set through a series of legal decisions made on a lawsuit filed in 1985, Flores v. Meese.
It's known as the Flores Settlement Agreement.
The exhibits filed with the TRO cite specific concerns with unsanitary conditions, access to clean drinking water, access to adequate food, cold temperatures, sleeping conditions and denial of emergency services at facilities in El Paso and McAllen.
Under the Flores Settlement Agreement, facilities that house migrant children must be "safe and sanitary."
Harlingen-based immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin was part of the team who conducted inspections and reported to the Flores Settlement legal team.
She interviewed forty children; many were not doing well.
She says she noticed "lots of cold, flu-type symptoms. Coughing, phlegm. I had one child who during the interview was coughing so much, she threw up four times during my interview because of so much phlegm and congestion in her system."
Four children were hospitalized as a result of what the review group found in McAllen.
Goodwin says they were all toddlers and one child wasn't yet one year old.
During the tour offered to members of the media at the McAllen Processing Center, Acting Executive Officer for RGV Sector Law Enforcement Operational Programs Carmen Qualia said all migrant children receive medical screenings and can be checked for chicken pox, mumps, fever, and even mental illnesses.
Qualia said the Rio Grande Valley sector has a total of six medical teams: two at the Central Processing Center, and individual teams at the stations in Brownsville, Weslaco, McAllen and in Rio Grande City.
Quarantine cases or those who present signs that require further medical attention are taken to the Weslaco station which acts as an isolation facility.
On average, officials with the sector reports about 32 to 37 hospital visits a day.
DHS has recently acknowledged there are limitations.
Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan has previously stated, "In May, we had almost 60 thousand children as part of family units or unaccompanied minors come into border patrol stations that were built for single adults."
The processing center in McAllen is currently overcapacity.
The facility was designed to hold 1,500. According to Qualia, they are holding 1,984.
Of those, 424 are unaccompanied children, 1216 are part of families, and 344 are single adults.
The agency officials say many of the single adults who are waiting to go into ICE detention are waiting an average of 100 hours to get processed at the McAllen processing facility.
The agency works under a 72-hour deadline; the average time for unaccompanied children is 70 hours and up to 72 hours for families, according to Qualia.
All of the children interviewed by Goodwin in mid-June reported exceeding the 72-hour deadline.
Goodwin added, "I do recall of all of the kids that we spoke with, the longest had been there for 27 days, almost a month."
The children also reported a poor diet.
Goodwin says, "It’s not appropriate to give a two year-old frozen, processed meat. For that matter, it's not appropriate to give frozen processed meat to anyone. Especially, when they're supposed to be able to receive at least two hot meals per day. And, they're supposed to have open and ready access to milk, juice and snacks for the children, so when they're hungry they can eat."
Throughout Monday's scheduled tour, snacks, juice, and baby formula was visibly near children while they were processed and even while they were detained.
The attorneys who inspected the facility two weeks ago found these products and services lacking.
The government was recently questioned on whether access to basic hygiene items are part of what is constitutes a "safe and sanitary" facility.
The issue was discussed by a panel of three appellate court judges in the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Appeals.
Judge A. Wallace Tashima asked the government attorney, "You mean there are circumstances where a person doesn't need to have a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap for days?"
The attorney for the government responded, "I think in CBP custody, it's frequently intended to be much shorter term. It may that be for a shorter stay in CBP custody, some of those things may not be required."
The temporary restraining order seeks the court move to allow:
"An immediate inspection of all CBP Facilities [in the El Paso and Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sectors] by a public health expert authorized to mandate a remediation plan that Defendants must follow to make these facilities safe and sanitary, (2) immediate access to the Facilities by independent medical professionals appointed by Plaintiffs’ class counsel or the Court-appointed Special Master who can assess the medical needs of the children and triage appropriately, and [sic] (3) deployment of an intensive case management team to focus on expediting the release of Category 1 and Category 2 children (as classified in The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act) to alleviate the backlog caused by the inadequate Office of Refugee Replacement placement array, and (4)  an Order finding Defendants in contempt of Court, with a suitable and appropriate remedy to be determined by the Court."
In a response filed Thursday by the government, attorneys contend they need more time to prepare.
They also request the court deny the plaintiffs "seek to alter – not preserve – the status quo."
Attorneys for the government stated, "The Court should order the parties to engage in an expedited mediation process" to address the concerns.
A court decision on the request for a temporary restraining order is still pending before United States District Court Judge Dolly M. Gee in the Central District of California.
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