The children that Willamette Law professor W. Warren Binford interviewed had flaky scalps, runny noses and matted hair.
She said some wore the same clothes from when they entered the United States weeks before and hadn’t taken showers.
These were some of the conditions the Salem professor said she saw when she interviewed close to 60 children at border patrol facilities in the El Paso sector last week.
Binford and two teams of lawyers, doctors and translators volunteered to travel to the border to inspect the conditions of migrant children under the Flores settlement agreement by interviewing the children. The Salem-based professor said she’s done this for three years and does it a few times a year when she isn’t teaching.
Amid outrage on the conditions of migrant children at detention centers, the acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner John Sanders resigned Tuesday. Binford’s experience made headlines in the national media.
Here’s what she knows and why it’s happening.
“That’s not where children belong”
Binford, the clinical director at Willamette Law, said she saw and interviewed infants, toddlers, children and teenagers who described similar living conditions on her visits to Clint, Texas, and Santa Teresa, New Mexico, Border Patrols in the El Paso sector.
Often, Binford said children of all ages routinely slept on concrete floors. There weren’t enough beds and mats for everyone.
Binford said the children decided on their own who got a cushion to sleep on. Sometimes, the bed or mat would go to the first child who got ahold of it when another got up to go to the bathroom. Some kids gave their beds to younger children, so they would have a place to sleep.
Children described flu and lice outbreaks. In one instance, children had to share two lice combs and they lost one. When it was lost, a border patrol officer punished the children by making them sleep on the floor.
The group wasn’t originally supposed to go to the facility in Clint, Texas, but group members heard children were being moved there. The facility can house slightly over 100 adults, but with a recent expansion, one child said there were as many as 300 children in his cell.
When Binford and her team arrived, there were more than 350 children.
The next day, Binford said she and the group drove around and found a windowless warehouse that border patrol and children confirmed was the expansion.
“That’s not where children belong,” Binford said.
One child at the El Paso Border Patrol Station No. 1 also reported being struck by a guard.
Another child reported that when they tried to complain to the consulate about the conditions, the border patrol officers wanted to know what they said and yelled things such as:
“You don’t belong here.”
“Go back to where you came from.”
“You are pigs.”
“You came here to ruin my country.”
That same child said he’d seen officers hit detainees in the stomach and when they tried to complain about it, the officer came and said he didn’t feel anything. Officers also warned them that if they reported the hitting, the children could get 25 years in jail if they couldn’t prove it.
Binford said although there might be some bad people in the system, most “are good and decent people who’ve been put in an untenable position by the government.”
Binford said children described being fed the same meals every day, including Kool-Aid and a cookie and instant oatmeal for breakfast, instant soup for lunch and a frozen burrito for dinner.
“It’s unbelievable what I saw,” Binford said. “I never thought I’d see this in the United States of America.”
What does Customs and Border Protection have to say about it?
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection official said allegations of civil rights abuses, mistreatment and detention were being taken seriously and investigated. Recent allegations were reported to the Office of the Inspector General and the CBP Office of Professional Responsibility.
The official also said the facilities were designed in the 1990s and early 2000s without showers because the center is meant to hold people short-term. Showers through shower facilities are provided at least every three days when numbers are over 300 and every two days when numbers are lower.
The CBP official said children are fed at least three times a day and two of those meals are hot. Snacks and juice are offered twice per day and the children can request more.
CBP said they don’t want the children in their custody because their facilities weren’t meant for that.
The official said the agency is doing everything it can, and that officers should be commended for what they’re doing. Some carry and feed infants or buy meals for people from McDonald’s.
How did W. Warren Binford get into the border patrol facility?
Under the Flores settlement agreement, Binford said she and the group could travel to the facility to interview the children. She said she made arrangements about three weeks in advance.
The settlement agreement from 1997 ensures that the government is meeting safety and sanitation standards when keeping children at border patrol facilities after migrant children were found living in cages and other unsanitary conditions.
The settlement will remain in effect until the government comes up with formal regulations, which it hasn’t done yet, said Jennifer Podkul, the senior director for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense.
“It’s crucial in protecting kids,” Podkul said.
Until then, Binford and other volunteers are the only third-party allowed to enter the facilities to talk to children, the Flores counsel’s clients, and report the conditions back to the counsel. Binford said they cannot tour the facilities.
Binford’s findings are then reported back to the court. Sometimes, the Flores counsel will ask for the government to enforce the settlement if they find conditions that violate it.
Podkul said that when the government does come up with these regulations, lawyers like Binford would no longer be able to enter the facilities to talk to the children.
“I think that’s a huge, huge concern,” she said. “The only reason we’re fighting about the horrific abuses of these kids is because Flores counsel is talking to these kids. There’s no other third-party monitoring happening.”
Who is W. Warren Binford?
Binford is the director of Willamette University’s Clinical Law Program, according to the school’s website.
In 2005, she founded the school’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic, which provides free legal support to children and families.
She’s provided support to organizations such as Save the Children, the International Red Cross, the International Criminal Court, the Japan and Croatia Red Cross and the Dutch National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking and Sexual Violence against Children.
Binford practices law in California, Oregon, the U.S. District Court, Eastern and Northern Districts of California, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. From 2006-2011, she was the Special Assistant Attorney General in Oregon.
Why are children being kept in these facilities?
There’s been an influx of children at the border recently.
A CBP official said they arrested more than 664,000 people up to June 1. More than 377,000 of those people were in family units, and more than 61,000 of those people are unaccompanied minors. These children have no immigration status in the U.S., are under 18 years old and have no parent or legal guardian in the U.S. or one readily available to take custody, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
These higher numbers have put a strain on these border patrol facilities, which are only meant to house people up to three days. With the backlog in processing some of the children, some are there up to weeks longer.
Podkul said there was previously an influx in 2014 under the Obama administration. But this year’s influx wasn’t a surprise because the government predicted those numbers at the beginning of the year.
When children cross the border, they’re typically separated and reclassified as unaccompanied and they stay in these facilities until the child gets moved to a care facility by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. The office will then help reunite children with family members or sponsors.
Podkul said the agencies were blaming each other for the problems of getting children into licensed childcare facilities.
A policy from President Donald Trump’s administration a year-and-a-half ago has also presented issues, but was recently changed with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Podkul said.
The policy previously stated that when ORR did background checks on sponsors and found out they were undocumented, they would share that information with ICE.
Now, that information will only be shared if the person has a criminal history, Podkul said.
In Portland, a childcare facility spends every day of the week trying to contact family members or sponsors these kids could live with, a spokesperson said. The Oregonian/OregonLive chose not to name the facility so it would not be targeted by protestors.
The facility isn’t at capacity, and it doesn’t have a backlog.
Once case managers find family members and sponsors, they have to go through an FBI background and fingerprint test and then an interview. If they’re approved, they’ll release the child into their care.
“What’s happening in Portland is not what’s unfolding on TV,” the spokesperson said. “Our No. 1 concern is protecting these kids.”
Under the Flores settlement, ORR is supposed to reunite kids with family sponsors as soon as possible, but there’s no time limit, Podkul said.
In November, it took an average of 90 days to hand kids over to these sponsors. In May, that number decreased to 44 days, an ORR spokesperson said.
The agency said the reason for the long wait is because of the number of children arriving, a 60 percent increase from last year.
“We continue to experience a humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border of the United States, and the situation becomes more dire each day,” the ORR spokesperson said.