Elora Mukherjee, the director of Columbia Law School's Immigrants' Rights Clinic, recently interviewed 70 detained migrant children in Clint, Texas. They were so dirty they had a stench, she says, and was unable to be near them without feeling ill.
The lawyer testified to Congress on Friday, telling the House Committee on Oversight and Reform about the horrid conditions she saw while inspecting facilities that are a key part of the Trump administration's child separation policy.
Over the course of three days, Mukherjee said she witnessed inadequate bedding, clothing, and saw no hygiene tools like soap, toothbrushes and diapers.
"Never before have we learned of 700 children being detained in a facility built for 104 or 106 adults," Mukherjee said in her testimony. "Never before have we met with children detained in [Customs and Border Patrol] custody for a week, much less weeks and nearly a month. Never before have we had to directly intervene to get critically ill babies admitted to the hospital."
She said there were several occasions where her team had to intervene to get children fed because they were too scared to ask guards for food. Many children feared that their parents were dead or never returning.
Some children, she said, were too traumatized to even speak. One six-year-old girl couldn't even recite her name, she only repeated "I'm scared" over and over again. Another young boy sobbed for an hour straight.
"I spent nearly an hour with this child, first trying to interview him and then just letting him sit on my lap while I rubbed his back," she said. "He wept almost inconsolably for most of the time." Later, she told Congress, a guard came and attempted to bribe him with a lollipop so that he would return to his cell.
Mukherjee was part of a 10-person team sent to inspect conditions at the holding centers to make sure they complied with court-ordered standards that the camps be "safe and sanitary." The group was allowed to speak to detained children but they were denied free access or even tours of the facility.
"The extraordinary trauma inflicted on separated children is not an incidental byproduct of the administration's family separation policy — it is the very point," she said in her testimony. "The federal government seeks to inflict so much distress on children seeking asylum that other families would be deterred from trying to seek refuge in this country."