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Biden administration sued: Migrant teens in substandard conditions

Newsman: Lawyers representing children in U.S. immigration custody asked a federal court on Monday to order the release of migrant teenagers from two emergency housing sites in Texas where minors have reported mental distress, substandard conditions, prolonged stays and inadequate services.

The suit marks the first time the Biden administration has been sued by attorneys responsible for ensuring the government is complying with the Flores Agreement. The complaint, which includes testimony from more than a dozen children in U.S. care, expands on reporting about the emergency sites, which do not have child-welfare licenses, unlike traditional HHS shelters.

Migrant facility tent in Texas

“My anxiety attacks have been abnormal here — they have gotten worse since I arrived at Pecos,” a 16-year-old migrant girl from El Salvador said in a court declaration. “I have had about 3 or 4 anxiety attacks since I have been here.” Another migrant girl housed at the Pecos facility said her 15-year-old brother, who had been at the site for 60 days, became “depressed” because they were not being released to their relative.

“I am very concerned that there are so many kids who have been here for over 60 days,” the 17-year-old Honduran girl said in her declaration. “Some of these youth are waiting to live with their parents — they should not still be here.”

In their lawsuit before the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the attorneys accused the Biden administration of violating the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement and its rules regarding the treatment of migrant children, which the federal government is legally obliged to follow.

At the center of the 31-page complaint are two makeshift housing facilities for unaccompanied migrant children that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) established this spring at the Fort Bliss U.S. Army base and a camp for oil workers in Pecos, a remote town in west Texas.

As of August 4, the Fort Bliss and Pecos facilities were housing 1,800 and 800 unaccompanied children, respectively, according to federal data obtained by CBS News. The administration is planning to house “tender age” children under the age of 12 at the Pecos camp, according to a government contract from July.

In addition to concerns about prolonged stays and limited case management, children housed at the Pecos facility reported being served undercooked food. They also described limited educational and recreational services. 

Monday’s complaint asked U.S. Judge Dolly Gee, who has been overseeing the litigation over the Flores agreement, to direct the Biden administration to expedite the release of children from the Pecos and Fort Bliss facilities. 

The attorneys are also seeking to require HHS to establish higher standards of care at the emergency sites and to limit the placement of young children, parenting teens, indigenous youth and other vulnerable minors at the facility.

The tent camp at the Fort Bliss Army base is the largest facility the U.S. has ever set up to house migrant children. A photo of the tent camp was provided to CBS News by a source. 

CBS News has reported that migrant teenagers held at the tent camp inside Fort Bliss have been constantly monitored for self-harm, escape attempts and panic attacks. Federal officials who worked at the tents have also described subpar mental health services and a jail-like environment.

In a declaration filed Monday, a 16-year-old boy from Honduras who was transferred to a more restrictive shelter in New York after trying to escape from Fort Bliss described his time at the Army base as “hell,” saying he was served bloody chicken.

“I felt anguished and hopeless,” the boy said. “I was held hostage and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Two Honduran brothers reported being held at the Pecos site for 65 days, despite having an uncle in Houston willing to care for them. “Every day, I wake up and feel very sad. I am frustrated because I see other kids leave before me,” the oldest brother, who is 15, said in his court testimony.

The Biden administration has defended the creation of the emergency HHS sites, saying they were necessary to get migrant children out of ill-suited Border Patrol holding facilities, which were dangerously overcrowded in the early spring.

HHS has closed most of the 14 emergency facilities it set up at military sites, convention centers and work camps to house minors who crossed the southern border without their parents. Some of them, including a Houston warehouse, closed after reports surfaced detailing poor conditions.

The administration has yet to say whether it will wind down operations at the remaining four emergency sites, which are supposed to be temporary. HHS has said improvements are being made to the facilities, especially at Fort Bliss, which is at the center of an internal watchdog probe.

“The care and well-being of children in our custody continues to be a top priority for HHS,” the department said in a statement last month.

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