Inside an old warehouse in south Texas, hundreds of children wait away from their parents in a series of cages created by metal fencing, AP reports.
One cage had 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets.
One teenager told an advocate who visited she was helping care for a young child she didn’t know because the child’s aunt was somewhere else in the facility. She said she had to show others in her cell how to change the girl’s diaper.
On Sunday, the US Border Patrol allowed reporters to briefly visit the facility where it holds families arrested at the southern border, responding to new criticism and protests over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy and resulting separation of families.
More than 1,100 people were inside the large, dark facility that was divided into separate wings for unaccompanied children, adults on their own and mothers and fathers with children. The cages in each wing open into common areas, to use portable restrooms. The overhead lighting stays on around the clock.
Reporters were not allowed by agents to interview any of the detainees or take photos.
Nearly 2,000 children have been taken from their parents since the attorney general Jeff Sessions announced the policy, which directs homeland security officials to refer all cases of illegal entry into the US for prosecution.
Church groups and human rights advocates have sharply criticized the policy, calling it inhumane.
Stories have spread of children being torn from their parents’ arms, and parents not being able to find where their kids have gone. A group of congressional lawmakers visited the same facility on Sunday and were set to visit a longer-term shelter holding around 1,500 children – many of whom were separated from their parents.
“Those kids inside who have been separated from their parents are already being traumatized,” said the Democratic senator Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, who was denied entry earlier this month to children’s shelter. “It doesn’t matter whether the floor is swept and the bedsheets tucked in tight.”
In Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for people trying to enter the US, Border Patrol officials argue that they have to crack down on migrants and separate adults from children as a deterrent to others.
“When you exempt a group of people from the law … that creates a draw,” said Manuel Padilla, the Border Patrol’s chief agent here. “That creates the trends right here.”
Agents running the holding facility – generally known as “Ursula” for the name of the street it’s on – said everyone detained is given adequate food, access to showers and laundered clothes, and medical care.
People are supposed to move through the facility quickly. Under US law, children are required to be turned over within three days to shelters funded by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Padilla said agents in the Rio Grande Valley have allowed families with children under the age of five to stay together in most cases.
An advocate who spent several hours in the facility on Friday said she was deeply troubled by what she found. Michelle Brane, the director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission, met a 16-year-old girl who had been taking care of a young girl for three days. The teen and others in their cage thought the girl was two years old.
“She had to teach other kids in the cell to change her diaper,” Brane said.
Brane said that after an attorney started to ask questions, agents found the girl’s aunt and reunited them. It turned out that the girl was actually four. Part of the problem was that she did not speak Spanish but K’iche, a language indigenous to Guatemala.
“She was so traumatized that she wasn’t talking,” Brane said. “She was just curled up in a little ball.”
Brane said she also saw officials at the facility scold a group of five-year-olds for playing around in their cage, telling them to settle down. There are no toys or books. But one boy nearby wasn’t playing with the rest. According to Brane, he was quiet, clutching a piece of paper that was a photocopy of his mother’s ID card.
“The government is literally taking kids away from their parents and leaving them in inappropriate conditions,” Brane said. “If a parent left a child in a cage with no supervision with other five-year-olds, they’d be held accountable.”