Weslaco detention facility ‘is absolutely unconscionable’, civil rights lawyer says

Border Report

SAN JUAN, Texas (Border Report) — A lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project who has had rare access to a South Texas migrant detention facility run by Customs and Border Protection in Weslaco, said of her recent visit: “The conditions in which people are being housed are absolutely unconscionable.”

Karla Vargas, a senior lawyer with the nonprofit organization based in San Juan, Texas, said that she has interviewed children inside the Weslaco facility, which earlier this month was cited in a report by the Office of Inspector General for overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. The OIG report also cited children for being held well beyond the federal limit of 72 hours at the facility.

‘They were unbathed’

Vargas told Border Report that she spoke with one child held for 42 days. She also said the facility was extremely cold, dirty, lacked nutritious meals and that children were detained “in absolutely horrid conditions.”

“These are supposed to be overnight facilities. I’ve spoken with children who say they’ve been detained there for weeks,” Vargas said prior to her July 12 testimony in Austin before a Texas House joint committee hearing on detention facilities.

“They were unbathed. They had been in these facilities a very long time. They spoke about the conditions of these cells being very dirty,” Vargas said. “The lack of medical care. The extreme cold. Food that is not nutritious at all — especially to young children and nursing mothers. There is no privacy. One of the children with whom I spoke said the cell was so crowded that the only place she could sit with her baby was right next to the toilet that was dirty and foul-smelling and that is where she breastfed her baby.

Holding children beyond 72 hours is a violation of Flores v. Reno, a 1997 federal court decision that strictly limits the government’s ability to keep children in immigration detention. The agency is required to transfer unaccompanied children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours.

“The only place she could sit with her baby was right next to the toilet that was dirty and foul smelling and that is where she breastfed her baby.”

Karla Vargas, senior lawyer, Texas Civil Rights Project

The Trump Administration has been fighting this law and since September 2018 and has proposed removing this judicial oversight that protects migrant children who are in custody.

Vargas was allowed to tour the facility as part of litigation regarding the Flores case.

“This administration is focused solely on enforcement and not on processing and adjudicating claims,” Vargas said. “There is zero accountability in the way in which they treat people.”

A June 11, 2019, photo shows overcrowding of families inside the Border Patrol’s
Weslaco, Texas facility. The photo was included in the Office of Inspector General’s June 2, 2019, report on overcrowding and prolonged detention of minors. (Photo by OIG)

The July 2 OIG report by Acting Inspector General Jennifer Costello ordered: “Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to take immediate steps to alleviate dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults in the Rio Grande Valley.”

The report stated: “Border Patrol’s custody data indicates that 826 (31 percent) of the 2,669 children at these facilities had been held longer than the 72 hours generally permitted under the TEDS standards and the Flores Agreement.”

Since the report was issued, several federal and state lawmakers have made trips to view detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, which the Border Patrol says has the highest number of immigrants entering the country illegally than any other sector in the nation.

“The Department of Homeland Securities’ own investigation determined there were basic issues in the treatment of migrants in these facilities,” Texas State Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Hays and Blanco counties) said Thursday after touring a CBP detention facility in Donna, Texas, along with 10 House members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

But Zwiener and other lawmakers told Border Report that they weren’t allowed to pick the detention facility that they toured. They weren’t given the opportunity to view the Weslaco facility, but they vowed to continue to keep requesting additional tours of all facilities in South Texas and to keep trying to hold the federal government accountable.

To read about the visit to the Donna facility go to this Border Report story.

Children are dying in detention

“We are in a situation right now where we have had many children die directly because of their being housed in these facilities,” Vargas told Border Report.

Texas Monthly on Wednesday published a report detailing the death of the fifth Guatemalan child to die since December in Border Patrol custody, based on the information requested through autopsy reports. The autopsy found that 16-year-old Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez died on May 20 at the Weslaco detention facility after suffering from the flu, complicated by pneumonia and sepsis, on or near the toilet in his cell.

All of the children who have died since December were initially taken into custody by agents from the El Paso and Rio Grande Valley sectors of the Border Patrol. Before December, no child had died in Border Patrol custody in a decade.

“The number of times a whistleblower has had to come forward to tell us something that is wrong in our immigration policy is wrong. It shouldn’t have taken that many whistleblowers,” Zwiener said.

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