Lawyers Who Visited Detained Migrant Children Say Border Officials Barred Them From Seeing the Sickest Kids, Who Were Held Separately

A group of lawyers that shone a light on "appalling" conditions at U.S. detention centers where migrant children were being held say border officials barred them from visiting the "sickest" children at one Texas facility, where they were held separately from other kids.

In an interview with Newsweek, Human Rights Watch U.S. Program Executive Director Nicole Austin-Hillery said U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency personnel refused to grant her and other lawyers visiting the Clint detention center last month access to a "sick ward" where sick children were being detained.

"We asked if we could visit with children who were sick and who had been ill for a few days because our understanding was that there was an area of the facility called the 'sick area' or the 'sick ward' and so, we said we wanted to see those children," Austin-Hillery said. "We wanted to see how those children, who are most vulnerable right now, how they are being treated and being cared for."

However, despite repeated requests, Austin-Hillery said CBP officials refused to grant lawyers access, claiming it was for their own health and safety.

"We were prohibited from seeing those children and we were told it was for our own safety," Austin-Hillery said.

"We told them, 'we don't care. We're not concerned about catching a cold,'" she said.

Ultimately, however, the lawyers were forced to leave the facility without being able to see the children who would be among the most vulnerable at the detention center.

The claim that lawyers were barred from visiting the sickest children at the Clint detention center comes to light as a federal judge has ordered the Trump administration to give medical professionals access to detention facilities in the El Paso and Rio Grande Valley sectors holding migrant children, in order to assess their medical needs and ensure they are now being held in "safe and sanitary" conditions.

The order, handed down on Friday from U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, came after lawyers, including Austin-Hillery, asked for emergency judicial intervention in the Trump administration's treatment of migrant children after they found that children were being held in "deplorable" conditions with inadequate access to food, water and basic sanitation.

"Children are held for weeks in deplorable conditions, without access to soap, clean water, showers, clean clothing, toilets, toothbrushes, adequate nutrition or adequate sleep," lawyers said in their court filing, calling for intervention. "The children, including infants and expectant mothers, are dirty, cold, hungry and sleep-deprived," they said.

Austin-Hillery said that what she saw when she visited the Clint detention facility was "heart-wrenching," with "all of the children" that she encountered at the facility appearing "clearly frightened" to be there.

"They were often in tears," she said.

The HRW U.S. program chief said that as soon as she entered the facility she was also struck by a "stench" in the air "that was obviously related to their body odor," with most of the children looking as though they had not been able to bathe regularly.

"When I asked when was the last time you bathed, most of them said it had been days. When I asked if they had been given clean clothes, some said they were wearing the clothes that they arrived in," she continued. "I asked if they had been brushing their teeth regularly and I was told, no, that they were brushing their teeth but not on a daily basis."

In addition to appearing to have limited access to basic sanitation, children also complained of being hungry and tired.

"Many said they were hungry," she said. "There were several who looked like they hadn't been getting enough sleep. Their eyes were closing."

One child, Austin-Hillery said, "was so tired, his eyes just kept on closing. We had to lay him down in the room where we were conducting our interviews so that he could get rest and he immediately fell asleep. He slept so peacefully, it looked like it was the first time he had slept in a while."

In many cases, Austin-Hillery and other lawyers had to demand for "immediate" action to be taken to address the needs of several children and teenagers being held at the facility.

One detainee, a "young mother who was breastfeeding," told Austin-Hillery that she had been forced to sleep on the floor because, unlike other mothers, she had not been given a cot.

"I immediately asked that a cot be given to her," Austin-Hillery said.

In another case, a young boy was "coughing profusely and wheezing. He really appeared as though he was having trouble breathing, so I asked if we could get medical care for the child."

To their credit, Austin-Hillery said, officials "attempted to be responsible and said they would follow up" on her requests. However, she said that she and other lawyers were left baffled at the "heart-wrenching circumstances" children were being forced to live in under the Trump administration's watch.

In addition to ordering that the Trump administration give medical professionals access to its El Paso and Rio Grande Valley sector facilities, Gee has also given the Trump administration and plaintiffs a deadline of July 12 to file a joint status report on their mediation efforts, as well as what has been done to address the dire conditions described by Austin-Hillery and other lawyers.

It is unclear whether CBP plans to allow medical professionals access to the "sick ward" that Austin-Hillery described. Newsweek has contacted the agency for more information.

clint detention
A temporary facility set up to hold migrants is pictured at a United States Border Patrol Station in Clint, Texas, on June 25. A group of lawyers shone a light last month on the "appalling" conditions migrant children were being forced to live in, with insufficient access to food, water and sanitation. PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts