By Meagan Flynn / The Washington Post
Authorities are investigating a complaint from a 15-year-old migrant girl that a U.S. border agent sexually assaulted her while she was detained in a facility in Yuma, Arizona, Customs and Border Protection said Tuesday night.
The allegations are contained in an internal report obtained by NBC News. The teenager from Honduras said a CBP officer put his hands inside her bra, pulled down her underwear and groped her under the guise of a routine pat-down search, NBC reported. She reported he was laughing with the other guards in plain view of other migrants, embarrassing her.
A spokesman for CBP confirmed in a statement to The Washington Post that the complaint is under investigation, along with other claims of mistreatment and retaliation against children contained in the incident reports compiled by Department of Health and Human Services case managers and cited by NBC.
“The allegations do not align with common practice at our facilities and will be fully investigated,” the CBP spokesman said. “It’s important to note that the allegation of sexual assault is already under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.”
The latest allegations of mistreatment of child migrants come as CBP’s overcrowded detention facilities face mounting scrutiny, with detained children describing awful experiences ranging from a lack of basic hygiene products to being forced to sleep on a concrete floor. Although border arrests fell 28 percent in June, DHS officials said the situation in the region remained an “acute and worsening crisis.” On Monday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she was “deeply shocked” by the conditions.
The allegations contained in the HHS incident reports cited by NBC, however, go beyond poor conditions caused by overcrowding and describe alleged deliberate mistreatment by CBP agents. Children described feeling afraid to ask for anything because agents would punish them for complaining. Others said guards hurled derogatory language at them, calling some “puto,” an anti-gay slur in Spanish, while giving orders, NBC reported. One boy said he wore soiled underwear for 10 days because he feared asking for a clean pair. A 16-year-old Guatemalan boy said agents took away mats from him and the other boys in his cell after they complained about the food and water. Instead, they slept on the bare concrete, NBC reported.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, told the news outlet the “very concerning” allegations “need to be fully investigated.”
The complaints cited by NBC all came from one facility in Yuma, but federal court documents suggest retaliation against children may occur elsewhere, too.
Last month, attorneys visited several Border Patrol detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley to interview dozens of detained children. They were investigating whether the federal government was complying with a 1997 consent decree known as the Flores Settlement Agreement, which requires that children be kept in “safe and sanitary conditions.”
The dozens of interviews, filed in federal court, also contain reports of retaliation and physical abuse. At least one girl said she was so afraid of retaliation by guards that she refused to allow attorneys to put her name on her declaration.
In another case, a 7-year-old girl said that children in her cell were found to have lice and so agents gave the other girls in the cell one lice comb each night as a preventive measure. But when the girls lost the comb, the guard punished them by taking away their mats and blankets, she said.
“We all slept on the hard tile floor last night,” she said.
Warren Binford, director of the clinical law program at Willamette University, told The Washington Post last month that when she alerted agents to that claim, they denied it. “I’m like, I’ve got a cell full of kids telling me that’s exactly what happened,” Binford told The Post.
One minor who had been detained in McAllen, Texas, for 21 days without a shower or a phone call, claimed she witnessed CBP agents hit child migrants in the stomach but said the guards “try to intimidate us into not reporting these types of things,” according to the court filing. She claimed one officer warned that if they reported an assault that they couldn’t prove was true, they could go to jail for 25 years.
Another child, a 12-year-old, said the guards were “mean and scary.” One day, the boy said, a guard came in to the cell demanding to know who had “snuck food in the cell.” One hungry teenager cowered. He had smuggled in a burrito, pudding and juice. When the guards found his stash, they handcuffed him, the boy said. “My cousin and I were very shocked and scared,” he said.
Like the children in Yuma, others interviewed by lawyers who visited the Rio Grande Valley facilities said they were afraid to ask agents for food, to raise the temperature or to take a shower.
“The staff is so abusive I am afraid to ask for anything,” one teen mother detained in McAllen said in Spanish. “Yesterday, my baby was crying because he was hungry and the staff said to me, ‘Hey, take care of your baby. It’s OK to have them but you have to take care of them.’ They didn’t bring me any food for him.”
Another teen mom said that when a male guard at the Clint, Texas, facility saw her crying he asked, “Why did you come here if you don’t like it?”
“When I think about what he said, I start to cry,” she said. “It is so difficult to be here.”
Only a few children said they weren’t scared. “No one scolds me or is mean here,” one 8-year-old detained at Clint said, adding that the “kids take care of each other.” “It is OK but I want to see my parents.”
The sworn declarations were filed as evidence last month as attorneys sought emergency relief from U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee and immediate remedies to fix the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.
In a June 28 order, Gee ordered the federal government and attorneys for the children to work with an independent monitor to develop a plan to remedy the conditions at the detention facilities. In her three-page order, Gee appeared irked that the government did not already have a plan, given the Flores Settlement Agreement has been in place for two decades.
“If 22 years has not been sufficient time for Defendants to refine that plan in a manner consistent with their ‘concern for the vulnerability of minors’ and their obligation to maintain facilities that are consistently ‘safe and sanitary,’ it is imperative,” Gee wrote, that they make a plan right now.
The parties are expected to file a report on their progress by Friday.