Five days after alerting officials about an alarming number of infants under the age of 1 at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, a coalition of immigrant rights advocates say 15 out of the 17 babies have been released with their mothers.
“We remain alarmed that the government has demonstrated a willingness to detain such vulnerable individuals as a 5-month-old,” Kathryn Shepherd, national advocacy counsel for the Immigration Justice Campaign, told Rewire.News Monday afternoon. “I think it reflects total disregard for human life.”
Shepherd said she was concerned that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would not have responded without a team of advocates “on the ground in Dilley.”
Although Katy Murdza, advocacy coordinator for the Dilley Pro Bono Project, has long called the facility a “baby jail” for its practice of detaining young children, she grew alarmed last month when she saw a detained mother there holding a small baby. The woman confirmed to Murdza that her child was less than 12 months old, far younger than those usually held in the facility run by private prison company CoreCivic.
“After we found one, we quickly started to see others,” Murdza told Rewire.News. “Every mother we talked to said her baby was sick in some way.”
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During one week in February, Murdza spoke to nine mothers in the jail with infants under the age of 1, including a 5-month-old child. All are from Honduras and said they were detained after arriving in Eagle Pass, Texas, with a caravan of asylum seekers. Murdza said the only other time she has seen such young children in the South Texas facility was after a caravan of migrants arrived last May at the San Ysidro port of entry in California.
“This is very unusual,” Murdza said. “There is an unspoken rule that babies under 1 are not detained at Dilley because the government has discretion to release anyone they want at the border.”
Murdza joined with colleagues in the American Immigration Council, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network in the complaint on Thursday documenting the striking development sent to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Office of Inspector General (OIG).
“We have grave concerns about the lack of specialized medical care available in Dilley for this vulnerable population,” the complaint emphasizes.
One mother told advocates she had to wait more than a day to receive formula to feed her 5-month-old baby. Several complained they had to mix the formula with water that smelled like chlorine.
A letter from Physicians for Human Rights that accompanied the complaint noted that “the inherent harms and health risks of child detention … are exacerbated in the case of infants and young children.”
In a statement Monday morning to Rewire.News, ICE confirmed that as of March 1 the number of detained babies had actually grown in recent weeks. But by Monday afternoon, ICE confirmed to advocates that the majority of those infants had been released. ICE also said there was one infant in Karnes, Texas, and that children held in a family detention center in Berks County, Pennsylvania, are all currently over the age of 1.
While Murdza confirmed 15 families with babies under the age of 1 have been released, she noted she had originally known of just 12 babies before ICE said it had counted 17, “which leaves 5 babies I didn’t know the names of that were somewhere in the detention center. I’m not sure how many of those babies were later identified by us, or how many are ones we still don’t have names for, and don’t have a way to compare ICE’s list with ours. So technically several babies ICE mentioned could still be in the detention center, although we only know of one that we have identified.”
Murdza added that pro bono lawyers are still “trying to do intake” for 170 new families that arrived over the weekend, and that “regardless of current detention numbers, we are very concerned about what the government’s willingness to detain these babies over the past couple weeks means for infant asylum-seekers in the future, and the general trend towards further attempts at deterrence of asylum-seeking families.”
Legal advocates for fathers and children held at the Karnes jail told Rewire.News they too have documented “the youngest children we have ever seen” and also heard complaints of poor medical treatment.
“A lot the families are coming out of holding cells at the border that are super cold,” explained Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer for RAICES. “They are coming into detention with a lot of medical concerns and fevers, and some babies are just not getting treated with what they need.”
The complaint to DHS noted that a U.S. Supreme Court case known as the Flores settlement requires ICE “to meet basic standards of care for minor non-citizens in its custody” but it “repeatedly has demonstrated an inability to do so.”
CoreCivic deferred comment on the complaint to ICE. The company’s 2018 contract with ICE indicates that “ICE Health Service Corps will provide all direct patient care services at this location.”
In its statement, ICE said on-site staff includes registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, licensed mental health providers, mid-level providers that include a physician’s assistant and nurse practitioner, a physician, dental care, and access to 24-hour emergency care. It cited a June 2017 DHS Inspector General’s report that found immigrant jails that hold children are “clean, well-organized, and efficiently run.”
But that same OIG report also found that while “Family Residential Standards do not require an onsite pediatrician, the contracts for the two larger facilities with many children require one. One of these two facilities had onsite medical and mental health staff, including a family practitioner but did not yet have a pediatrician; even though the facilities contract had been modified in the fall of 2015 to require one.”
Not long after the OIG report, a 19-month-old Guatemalan girl died from viral pneumonitis just six weeks following her release from the South Texas facility. In a lawsuit filed in November, Yazmin Juárez said her daughter, Mariee, developed a severe fever and respiratory infection a week after being held there. She has since filed a lawsuit alleging medical staff misdiagnosed the child’s illness and did not prescribe the correct medication.
In 2017, advocates sent a complaint to DHS that ICE had started to detain pregnant women with children at the South Texas facility. The practice continues, and last week the Congressional Hispanic Caucus called for an investigation after a Honduran woman gave birth to a stillborn baby at the ICE detention center in Port Isabel, Texas.
ICE officials recently told the Arizona Republic that at least 28 women may have miscarried in ICE custody over the last two years.
A report released in January by the advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants found the top complaint from detained immigrants is medical neglect. While struggling to access necessary health care, many detained mothers and pregnant women must also navigate their asylum claims and undergo “credible fear” interviews that can determine whether they will be deported.
“We’ve had mothers say, ‘I can’t meet with my lawyer because my baby is crying the whole time,’” Murdza noted.
UPDATE, March 4, 6:41 p.m.: This piece has been updated with additional comments from Katy Murdza.