U.S. immigration and health authorities, facing what they say is a financial and logistical crush, have scrambled to move hundreds of migrant children out of an overcrowded Border Patrol station after lawyers who visited the facility last week described scenes of sick and dirty children without their parents, and inconsolable toddlers in the care of other children.

The alleged conditions at the U.S. Border Patrol station in Clint, Tex., raised the specter that hundreds of children – some still in infancy – who had arrived unaccompanied or had been separated from their relatives after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are being exposed to additional undue trauma as they languish for days or weeks in ill-equipped Border Patrol stations, lawyers said.

A Customs and Border Protection official disputed the allegations Tuesday morning, arguing that the child detainees in its custody receive “continuous” access to hygiene products and adequate food while awaiting placement in U.S. shelters designed for children. The official said that the agency was working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services to move the unaccompanied children to appropriate shelters and that it had cut the number held in Border Patrol facilities from 2,600 to less than 1,000 in the past week.

The official told reporters Tuesday that after moving children out of the Clint facility over the weekend and into Monday, it had to return 100 children to the station on Tuesday because of a lack of bed space in U.S. shelters and not enough funding to expand facilities for children.

The conditions at the border facilities and the lack of bed space have become part of the Trump administration’s argument for passage of its request for $4.5 billion in emergency appropriations from Congress, a proportion of which is designed to fund the housing of unaccompanied children through private contractors.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters at the White House on Monday that Congress must approve the emergency funding now because the agency has no more capacity to hold children, despite the fact that federal officials said earlier this month they are planning to open three emergency shelters to house approximately 3,000 to 4,000 children, two on military bases and one at a facility in South Texas.

“We are full right now. We are full,” Azar said. “We do not have capacity for more of these unaccompanied children who come across the border. And what happens is they get backed up there at the Department of Homeland Security’s facilities because I can’t put someone in a bed that does not exist in our shelters.”

HHS earlier this month canceled recreational and educational programs for minors in shelters nationwide, saying budget pressures have forced the department to focus just on services that are directly related to the “protection of life and safety.”

A spokeswoman for the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement said that by Tuesday the agency will have taken custody of nearly 250 unaccompanied children who had been held at the Clint facility, placing them in its own packed children’s shelters throughout the country.

A CBP official said Border Patrol agents had transferred another group of children out of the facility and into large tents outside another Border Patrol location in El Paso on Monday before rotating a group back into the station on Tuesday. Such a rotation is consistent with previous CBP efforts to manage the overwhelming number of migrant children in its detention cells, but the move was unlikely to substantially improve the children’s access to basic hygiene, nutrition, care and supervision, lawyers said.

The lawyers’ allegations have been submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General to launch an investigation. But the CBP official who briefed reporters on Tuesday cast doubt on the claims.

“All of the allegations of civil rights mistreatment are taken seriously,” the official said, noting that children receive hygiene products and food, including new clothing, hand sanitizer, soap, and water that are “continuously available.” Showers are available every three days, or more frequently, when the number of detainees falls to a more manageable level, the official said.

The agency staffs licensed monitors to assist children in feeding and bathing, and 85 percent of CBP facilities now have medical coverage through contracts with private companies that provide nurses or other trained medical personnel. Pressed on the lawyers’ descriptions of some children caring for other dirty, inconsolable children, the official said CBP is doing “everything we can.”

“The agents should be commended for what they’re doing,” the official said, adding that Border Patrol agents have volunteered to pitch in and feed babies and help with other tasks when monitors have been “overwhelmed.”

Barring extraordinary circumstances, unaccompanied migrant children must be transferred out of CBP facilities and into ORR custody for longer-term shelter within 72 hours of their apprehension at the border, according to U.S. laws and regulations.

But CBP officials and lawyers who have visited Border Patrol stations in recent weeks to monitor the Trump administration’s compliance with one of those regulations, known as the Flores Settlement Agreement, have said hundreds of children are spending days or weeks past that deadline in concrete Border Patrol cells without the specialized care they are afforded under the law because the agency tasked with providing it has run out of space.

ORR is responsible for placing unaccompanied children in special shelters and with foster families, providing the child detainees with access to beds, medical care, showers and educational activities, while also working to reunite them with their parents or other family members.

“The Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they’re supposed to be sending these children, is at capacity,” said University of San Francisco law professor Bill Hing, who was among the six attorneys to interview children at the Clint facility last week. The conditions that lawyers witnessed at the station were first reported by the Associated Press.

Border Patrol’s small, concrete cells were designed to hold adults for short periods of time, not children for weeks. There are no beds or private space. The hygiene is minimal, and the food provided – microwaveable burritos, instant soup and sugary drinks, lawyers said – is basic and poor in nutrition.

“ORR is theoretically set up to release the children safely into the United States. That’s what they’re staffed to do. CBP doesn’t have that capacity. They’re all guards,” said Hing, who described being moved to tears by the visible trauma of some of the children he interviewed. “They actually don’t have the infrastructure to be calling the aunt or the uncle, or even the parent who is in the United States, and actually check out whether it’s a safe place to place the child . . . They don’t have a staff of social workers, whereas ORR does.”

ORR has declined to quantify its available bed space, saying only that the agency was operating “near capacity” in its effort to respond to a humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied children on the southern border that is growing “more dire each day.”

“We cannot stress enough the urgency of immediate passage of emergency supplemental funding,” said spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer. “This funding will provide resources that our departments need to respond to the current crisis, enable us to protect the life and safety of unaccompanied alien children, and help us to continue providing the full range of services to the children in our custody.”

ORR says it has received referrals for 52,000 unaccompanied children since October, including 10,000 just in May. Officials say the ongoing flood of migrant families and unaccompanied children across the southwest border means ORR likely will shelter more children this year than it has in any year in the agency’s history.

“We have a humanitarian crisis at the border brought on by a broken immigration system,” Stauffer said, adding that the agency is urging Congress to take “swift action.”

Critics say the Trump administration has compounded the humanitarian crisis by continuing to unnecessarily separate children from adult relatives, and through the detention and mass arrests of migrant families and others with no previous criminal history, instead of focusing its enforcement efforts on serious criminals.

“There are so many unaccompanied kids because the U.S. government is ripping families apart at the border when those families consist of children and non-primary or non-parent caretakers,” said Clara Long, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, which has documented abuses along the border.

Both ORR and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees arrests, detentions and deportations of migrants have been facing mounting criticism from immigration attorneys, lawmakers and human rights monitors for their treatment of migrant detainees and their management of public funds.

Migrant detainees have described limited access to soap, toothbrushes and medical care. Lawyers touring another crowded Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Tex., expressed outrage earlier this month after they encountered a 17-year-old girl struggling to care for herself and her infant, while confined to a wheelchair due to leg pain that she attributed to complications from an emergency C-section she had in Mexico before crossing into the United States.

U.S. officials say there are dozens of teenage mothers with young children in Border Patrol facilities awaiting placement with HHS, a particularly vulnerable group. HHS says it has shelters that provide specialized services for pregnant and parenting unaccompanied minors, including programming that includes parenting classes and neonatal care, but would not address why so many teen mothers and their children are still in CBP custody at the border.

At least six migrant children have died since September after being taken into custody. Officials have meanwhile quarantined thousands of other adults and children in recent months in an effort to halt the spread of infectious diseases including influenza, mumps and chickenpox.

Two of the babies lawyers saw in captivity in Clint had to be rushed to the hospital due to diahrea and vomiting, Hing said.

ORR has blocked most public access to its children’s shelters, which have been plagued by allegations of child abuse and neglect, and questions of inappropriate political influence, and where many of the child detainees wait months to be reunited with family members.

Citing the potential for human trafficking and fraud, the Trump administration separates all children who arrive with adult relatives who are not their parents, even though lawyers say many travel with older brothers, sisters, aunts or uncles to reunite with a parent who is already in the United States. DHS has concerns that some migrants are traveling to the United States with children who are not theirs to avoid detention and deportation, and authorities have been doing DNA tests to determine familial connections. Lawyers claim children have been separated from parents at the border for other minor or insufficient reasons.

“There are so many other options – you don’t have to take them into detention to begin with,” Hing said. “A number of the children I interviewed came with aunts or uncles. It really isn’t necessary to take into custody many of these folks who are coming with families.”

Families that include parents and their children are allowed to remain together, but federal authorities do not have enough space to hold them and have in some cases been directly releasing them into the United States to await court dates that might be months or even years away.

Releasing them until their immigration court dates – for which a majority return, according to recent Syracuse University data – would “ease a lot of the pressure overnight,” Hing said.

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