Fort Bliss: Biden administration responds to report of inhumane conditions for migrant children at emergency shelter in Texas

Activist defending the rights of migrants holds a protest near Fort Bliss to call for the end of the detention of unaccompanied minors at the facility in El Paso, Texas, U.S, June 8, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
Activist defending the rights of migrants holds a protest near Fort Bliss to call for the end of the detention of unaccompanied minors at the facility in El Paso, Texas, U.S, June 8, 2021.

  • In court filings, migrant children at a federal shelter in Texas complained of inhumane conditions.
  • Children said they were given rotten food and were unable to sleep in overcrowded tents.
  • The Biden administration said it is working to improve conditions.
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The Biden administration is defending its handling of migrant children seeking asylum following testimony this week from young people and federal employees alike alleging poor conditions at an emergency intake facility in Texas.

“We take our humanitarian mission and the well-being of children in our care seriously,” said a statement emailed to reporters on Wednesday by Sarah Lovenheim, assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

In court documents filed this week, migrant children suggested that commitment was lacking, complaining of severe depression caused at least in part by excruciating conditions at shelters such as the one at Fort Bliss, a US Army base in El Paso, Texas.

The facility was first used to house detained migrants during the Trump administration.

In response, HHS, which runs the site, says it has increased the number of case managers at such sites by 95%, from 909 to 1,776 as of May 21. At the same time, it has also reduced the number of children in detention at Fort Bliss, from around 5,000 to 1,500, and elsewhere: there are fewer than 15,000 children in HHS custody today, compared to nearly 23,000 at the end of April.

A 13-year-old girl from Honduras said she was placed on suicide watch after spending two months there.

“The food here is horrible,” she testified. “Yesterday we were given hamburgers but I couldn’t eat it because there was a foul odor coming from the bread.”

The child also described suffering insomnia due to the conditions, per the legal filing.

“It is really hard for me to sleep because my cot is right next to a light that stays on all night,” she said, adding that a request for sleeping pills had been denied due to her age. “For the past week or so I have only been sleeping during the day.”

In its statement, HHS insisted children are “receiving nutritionally-appropriate meals.”

“Our goal is to safely and expeditiously unite children with their parent or sponsor and we continue to improve and streamline this process,” it said.

Another 17-year-old girl at the same facility, however, described overcrowded conditions even with the decrease in the number of children there, with hundreds of girls sleeping under the same tent.

“A lot of the girls here cry a lot,” she testified. “A lot of them end up having to talk to someone because they have thoughts of cutting themselves.”

Federal officials, concerned about deteriorating mental health among the children, “banned pencils, pens, scissors, nail clippers, and regular toothbrushes” inside of such tents, CBS News reported.

“They’ve gone from a small cage at Border Patrol to a larger cage at Fort Bliss,” a former employee there told the outlet. “It’s a juvenile detention facility.”

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The Biden administration moved more than $2 billion earmarked for COVID measures to deal with the influx of migrants at the border

Temporary Processing Facilities cbp migrant children border patrol
A Border Patrol temporary processing facility in Donna, Texas, for migrant children and families, pictured March 17, 2021.

  • The Department of Health and Human Services moved more than $2 billion from COVID-related relief funds to help the situation at the border.
  • At the southern border, there’s been an influx of migrants seeking entrance into the country.
  • US officials have struggled to respond to the surge.
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The Biden administration is funneling more than $2 billion toward the care of migrant children by and along the southern border, Politico reported.

That money had originally been earmarked to go toward various measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic, according to Politico.

The Department of Health and Human Services said $850 million will come from funds originally intended to expand testing for COVID-19, Politico reported.

Another $850 million will be taken out of a fund set aside to help the country rebuild its emergency stockpile of medical items like masks, respirators, and gloves. The Strategic National Stockpile is meant to support the country as it deals with an emergency, but the pandemic has basically emptied it.

Another $436 million coming from various health initiatives will also be diverted to support children at the border, according to Politico.

At the US-Mexico border, there’s been an influx of migrants seeking entrance to the US and fleeing unfavorable or difficult conditions in their home countries.

In response to the surge, the Biden administration opened several temporary federal shelters, and as of early May, Us officials are holding about 22,500 unaccompanied children.

There’s concern that officials have struggled to adequately care for these migrant children. There are reports, for example, that say migrant children are not receiving enough food or appropriate mental health care.

Earlier this year, the public got a first look inside the facility after a Congressional representative leaked photos to the media. One facility showed adults and children sitting in what appeared to be makeshift rooms separating out groups of people.

Each room was cordoned off by what looks like a plastic enclosure, drawing comparisons to jail cells. Dozens of masked children can be seen lying down on gray mats. Some were crowded into corners, despite the threat of the coronavirus spreading. Others appeared to sit on the floor.

Such conditions have caused lawmakers and human-rights experts to sound the alarms and argue that migrant children should have better treatment upon crossing the border.

HHS did not immediately return Insider’s request for comment. But speaking to Politico, HHS spokesperson Mark Weber explained the department is collaborating with the Office of Management and Budget to respond to the influx of migrant at the border.

“All options are on the table,” Weber said. “This program has relied, year after year, on the transfer of funds.”

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Xavier Becerra, California attorney general, is Biden’s pick to lead health department: NYT

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Then-Vice President Joe Biden, center, and then-Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., arrive in the Capitol Visitor Center for a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus, December 06, 2016.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the US Department of Health and Human Services, The New York Times reported on Sunday.

Becerra, 62, previously represented Los Angeles as a member of Congress, where he served in the Democratic leadership. He has served as California attorney general since 2017, succeeding Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

If confirmed, the Times noted, Becerra would be the first Latino to lead the health department.

As head of the health department, Becerra will be charging with helping to tackle a surging pandemic and administration of hundreds of millions of vaccine. Over the past week, hospitalizations due to the coronavirus have increased 11.6%, according to The Covid Tracking Project; deaths have risen 46.5% compared to the week before.

Becerra will also have to undo potential roadblocks set by the outgoing Trump administration. On Friday, he led a coalition of state attorneys general in challenging a “misguided and dangerous attempt at deregulation” within HHS that “would hamstring the incoming Biden administration in the midst of a global pandemic.”

In particular, the Trump administration is seeking to automatically “sunset” any HHS regulation that is not reviewed within a set period of time. Critics maintain that will redirect limited resources toward bureaucratic processes just to preserve existing rules, jeopardizing funding streams for state governments at a time when HHS will need “to enact new regulations aimed at controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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