RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Some of the children fleeing to the U.S. border from Central America say they were mistreated after they arrived. The underage migrants are at the center of the nationwide debate over immigration.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
There is much discussion about this flow of young people. Americans differ on whether to deport them more quickly or whether some should stay or whether they ever should have made their perilous and illegal journeys.
MONTAGNE: But there is wide agreement about one thing; the kids should be treated humanely during their time on U.S. soil. That is the focus of this story because of the way some minors described their time in federal custody. NPR's John Burnett has our story.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: They call them las hieleras - the freezers. These are the holding cells used by the U.S. Border Patrol to house adult and underage immigrants for days or weeks while they're being processed in the U.S. immigration courts. The children are later sent to better equipped government-run shelters.
SIXTA DELIA: (Foreign language spoken).
BURNETT: I suffered a lot in la hielera, says 11-year-old Sixta Delia who's brought to tears by the memory. I still wake up crying thinking I'm there and I never want to return there again as long as I live.
DELIA: (Foreign language spoken).
BURNETT: Sixta crossed the Rio Grande illegally into Texas with her older sister early last month after making the trip from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the world's most violent city. She's now living with her mother and a ramshackle house outside of Dallas. Their living room is still full of balloons from her welcome party. I asked Sixta what was worse - the treacherous journey through Mexico or her 17 days inside two Border Patrol stations in South Texas? She says without hesitation.
DELIA: (Foreign language spoken).
BURNETT: The experience inside the freezer. Sixta says the room was kept so frigid she caught a cold, and it went untreated for so long that she started bleeding from her nose and throat. When she asked for a doctor, she says, agents slammed the steel cell door in anger. Most Border Patrol stations have paramedics who are supposed to provide medical care. Sixta says agents told her and her sister, you damned Hondurans are a pest in our country. Her last name has been omitted because she is here illegally. Her first cousin is Jennifer, a slender, bashful 14-year-old who crossed into Texas separately a few weeks earlier. She's now living with her father, a television repairman, in Los Angeles.
JENNIFER: (Foreign language spoken).
BURNETT: It was horrible because they put handcuffs on my wrists and ankles when they put us on an airplane, she says sitting in her father's tiny living room surrounded by broken TVs. When we asked, why are you putting those on? - they called us thieves and said, you came here to steal from our country.
JENNIFER: (Foreign language spoken).
BURNETT: Jennifer shows a scab just above her heal from where she says the restraints broke the skin. There are more serious grievances. A Salvadoran girl says they were refused water and had to drink from a toilet tank. Several kids told me agents came in at all hours of the night to pound the walls with their batons to wake up the young detainees to do a count. All of these complaints were included in a 25-page protest letter submitted last month to the Department of Homeland Security by five immigrant advocate groups. They take on new urgency now that the Border Patrol in Texas has been overwhelmed by nearly 60,000 unaccompanied Central American youths since October. The commissioner of customs, Gil Kerlikowske, said in an interview last week with MORNING EDITION that his office takes charges of abuse seriously. He did not deny the immigrant children have legitimate complaints about conditions in the holding cells, but he discounted the most serious criticism.
GIL KERLIKOWSKE: When I looked at all of the complaints, you know, sleeping on a concrete floor is, you know - is not anything any of us wanted to see. And to see a room the size of this office with maybe 40 or 50 kids lying on the floor covered in a blanket waiting two and three and four days to be actually moved to a better facility - I know that we were overwhelmed.
BURNETT: I repeated the commissioner's statement to Erika Pinheiro, directing attorney at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles. She connected me to most of the child complainants that were interviewed for the story.
ERIKA PINHERIO: This isn't a new problem. And I'm sorry, but the commissioner absolutely cannot attribute this to the surge. This is something that's been going on for many years. At a minimum, you know, we can expect the CBP to respect the basic human dignity of these children.
BURNETT: There are also complains of verbal abuse - of agents calling the children and teenagers parasites, dogs, whores and worse and threatening them with bodily harm. A legal services project by the American Bar Association in the Rio Grande Valley filed 74 complaints on behalf of child immigrants in 2013. Michelle Quintero Millan is a staff attorney with ProBAR.
MICHELLE QUINTERO MILLAN: We understand that there's lots of children and that the officers are under extreme pressure. There's not enough space. It's very stressful. But at the same time, treating kids in this way - I mean, it's inappropriate, regardless of, you know, the humanitarian disaster that's going on right now.
BURNETT: Customs Commission Gil Kerlikowske says he's read a synopsis of the most recent complaints filed by the five groups last month.
KERLIKOWSKE: What I did not see, other than several complaints of offensive language - I didn't see complaints of assault or use of force.
BURNETT: But there were complaints of physical abuse. A 17-year-old Guatemalan named Jose Miguel said agents repeatedly kicked him and his cellmates awake at night to conduct a count.
JOSE MIGUEL: (Foreign language spoken).
BURNETT: Maybe they can't handle so many kids, Jose says. They're fed up. They're angry because they can send the adults back but they have to attend to the children. Shawn Moran, spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union is asked if some of these members might be taking out their frustrations on the child detainees.
SHAWN MORAN: I don't think there's any overt attempt to try and make this more difficult than it has to be, especially for juveniles, because in the end, we are responsible for the well-being of people that are in our custody.
BURNETT: Immigrant attorneys characterize the alleged mistreatment by the Border Patrol as systemic. But it is unclear how widespread it really is. I interviewed a dozen immigrant mothers and children who had nothing to do with the formal complaints. All of them agreed the cells were cramped and cold and the bologna sandwiches were terrible, but they said they were well treated. This is Osiris Sandoval, a 26-year-old mother from Honduras with her two-year-old, Juliet.
OSIRIS SANDOVAL: (Foreign language spoken).
BURNETT: The treatment we received was good up to a certain point, she said, because Americans are excellent human beings. Customs and Border Protection knows it has an accountability problem. Immigrant rights groups have filed these types of abuse complaints for years to the Office of Inspector General and the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Lawyers say the grievances usually never go anywhere, though CBP investigators have reportedly responded to the recent complaints by interviewing about a dozen of the children on the telephone. Last month, the agency removed its head of internal affairs amid accusations that he ignored misconduct by CBP officers who comprised the nation's largest police force. Comissioner Kerlikowske came in five months ago with the goal of straightening out a troubled agency, faced with growing criticism on its treatment of the Central American children. Now the question is whether the Border Patrol will be more responsive to these complaints. John Burnett, NPR News, McAllen, Texas.
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