In June, several whistleblowers at Fort Bliss military base came forward about the living conditions of migrant children. They allege unsafe conditions, panic attacks, and even children suffering from depression. Reporter Taylor Velazquez spoke with Bernardo Rafael Cruz from the ACLU of Texas, who’s been inside the facility, to talk about the notorious abuse.
KSFR: Recently, a former federal volunteer who worked at Fort Bliss in El Paso talked about the conditions at this unlicensed facility. And you have actually toured this facility. So, do you mind walking me through what you saw and what your experiences were?
Bernardo Rafael Cruz: The facility at Fort Bliss is an emergency intake site that was established by the Biden Administration. Their purpose was to move children quickly out of border patrol custody. These Border Patrol custody are facilities, which are notorious for inhumane conditions and abuse. So, the idea was to create these stop gap facilities in order to transfer them to the Health and Human Services emergency facilities. So, what the Fort Bliss facility was, the ACLU of Texas toured it both in April of this year, and again in May of this year. So, in both incidents, both occasions, we did see a mass of children housed in football field size tents. So, these are at that time, they were divided into groups. Each tent had a capacity, supposedly up to 1,000 children, we saw hundreds of children in one single tent, children were held at tents at all times, unless accompanied. So, these children could not leave the tent, they could move freely within it. But not they cannot leave or go to the bathroom without being accompanied. So, there were staff at the entrances that would prohibit children leaving.
What we have seen from various reports, once again, we visited the site when they had just opened. But what we have seen since that is that children have actually been at these facilities for over 30 days. That's obviously very concerning. As stated earlier, these were supposed to be an emergency intake site. So, for more short-term solution in order to get kids out from these terrible facilities, which are the border patrol facilities. And those have been heavily documented, where these are facilities where there's no beds, children are placed into very small quarters, there's often, if there is a bathroom in that facility, in each cell, that's only one bathroom, and there's no privacy. So, those are obviously very horrible conditions. So, that was the intention was obviously a positive on to try to avoid children being in these facilities. However, here, the fact that kids were being at this type of facility like Fort Bliss for such a long time is very problematic, because of all these other problems that come up.
KSFR: And so, you just went over a few of those conditions at this facility and a major concern voiced by former volunteers, is the foreseeability of long-term trauma. Like we talked about before you have been inside Fort Bliss. So, are you worried about this as well? And did the children seem to distressed to you?
Bernardo Rafael Cruz: The level of distress that children, especially with these ongoing reporting, that is going on. So, the fact that children have to be constantly monitored for self-harm, and multiple escape attempts? That's obviously very concerning. The other horrible conditions that are also being described, the allegations of sexual assault is obviously a very concerning problem, lack of medical care, and unhygienic conditions at the facility. We're talking about a large group of children all going through these areas where any of these problems by themselves obviously, all of them occurring in conjunction is particularly troublesome. But any of these by themselves is very worrisome. Now, it's obviously welcome news that the federal administration is trying to move children out of these facilities. But regardless of where children are being held by the federal government, whether it's border patrol custody, these intake facilities, they must ensure that the humane conditions are given to all these children. And regardless of where they are.
KSFR: And you know, you just talked about the self-harm and the panic attacks that were being reported. And are these facilities solely staffed by volunteers? And are those volunteers capable of handling the children and their needs?
Bernardo Rafael Cruz: Well, the specific persons who staff these organizations, my understanding is that those were handed out to subcontractors. Right? That were then managed by the Health and Human Services Department. The fact that children are going through these signals of distress and all these problems are ongoing, obviously demonstrates a deficiency in the care that they are given. The fact that any type of sexual assault is alleged is completely unacceptable. One of the problems seems to be that there's such a large group of children placed into one single unit, we're talking about extremely large amounts of children.
From recent reports that the Biden administration has moved out a large group of these children. So that's obviously welcome news, that the number of children at this type of facility keeps going down. But it's very important to remain vigilant and the EIS facilities, these emergency intake shelters, they should all follow basic standards. They at least should include more case managers to help reunite children faster. So, these children don't have to be at these facilities for so long. And they should also expand facilities of non-EIS licensed facilities. So, these are the more typical HHS shelters that were used prior to this type of facility. These obviously are state licensed facilities for the most part. And once again, those may have their own problems and their own concerns. But they do follow a model which seems to have had a better track record than these short-term facilities.
Another proposal that could try to speed this around is to co-locate Health and Human Services personnel in border patrol facilities. One of the major delays that occurs when these children and that causes told me to be in these fields for so long, is that the government has to follow procedure to be able to reunite them with their either their family, or their sponsors, who are currently in the United States. And by co-locating some of these people directly within the border patrol facilities, which is the first area where children arrive after they are detained by border patrol, this should be able to speed up the release. Hopefully to actually avoid them being transferred to any of these facilities directly into their sponsor or families without being held for any substantial period of time by the federal government.
KSFR: And it seems like one of the major facets is to speed up the process, like you said, but while the children are still staying at these facilities, what do you suggest being done to maybe encourage better mental health?
Bernardo Rafael Cruz: For the specific mental health, we have to defer to medical experts. We have to defer to independent medical and child welfare experts and listen to the science, on what is the best action for them. One of the general recommendations seems to be you know, shorten the time that they're there as much as possible.
KSFR: And one of the practices at these facilities is removing unaccompanied children without due process. Does the use of unlicensed facilities guarantee that the U.S. government doesn't have to follow the basic standards of care and provide legal services?
Bernardo Rafael Cruz: One of the differences between these types of emergency intake shelters is, for example, the Fort Bliss, one is on a military base, so it's on federal land. What that means is any facility within that are not subject to the general or regular state licensing requirements. So, the state of Texas, which is where Fort Bliss is located, cannot go into the facility and say all you have to meet XY and Z requirements.
However, the Fort Bliss, or any type of federal facility does have to follow any guidelines promulgated or created by the Health and Human Services Department. Which most of these licensed facilities that we talked about, we are referring to them as state licensed, right? So, that's the difference if they're receiving federal funding and if they're managed by the Health and Human Services Department, they also have to follow their guidelines from that federal department.
KSFR: Do you believe there's enough case managers available? And there's also virtual case managers now? Is that because of COVID? Or is that just how they're doing it?
Bernardo Rafael Cruz: When we visited the facility, there were in person case managers. The length of time is a clear indicator that there's not enough case managers, there's not enough capacity to be able to help each child be reunited with their family or sponsor. They should hire more case managers to help children.
KSFR: And lastly, is there something that you would like the general public to be aware of when it comes to immigration and these facilities?
Bernardo Rafael Cruz: I think it's important to realize that there's children have been detained by the federal government, this is not a new thing. It's been ongoing for a long time. And throughout this time, there have been various situations where they have not been treated, given the same the care that they should. Children were housed in border patrol facilities, children are still even for a short period of time detained by border patrol before they are moved to a shelter. So, I think it's very important for us to know that we do detain people through various types of facilities. These types of border patrol facilities are notorious, but a lot of people don't know about them. So, I think it's important for us to know that the U.S. federal government has detained children and other people in very very bad conditions for a long time. And we really have to push to improve them as best as possible.