Lawyers representing children in U.S. immigration custody sued the Biden administration over its handling of child migrants in two Texas facilities -- as attorneys claim migrants have suffered mental distress and suffered "shockingly deplorable" conditions.
The lawsuit, first reported by CBS News, focuses on two of a number of emergency intake sites (EISs) set up by the Biden administration to handle the surge in unaccompanied children coming across the border as part of the ongoing migrant crisis.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) set up sites including the particular Texas sites mentioned in the lawsuit at the Fort Bliss Army base and a camp in Pecos.
"Minimal standards and inadequate oversight at EISs has exposed thousands of children to unacceptable conditions that threaten their safety and well-being," the lawsuit, filed by lawyers with the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and the National Center for Youth Law, states. "In particular, the Fort Bliss and Pecos EISs have exposed children to shockingly deplorable conditions."
The lawsuit alleges that in Pecos, children have "no religious services, few daily activities, and what little outdoor recreation they do have takes place in unshaded areas where temperatures sometimes reach over 110 degrees."
Meanwhile in Fort Bliss, children have described sleeping in large areas with no privacy and with hundreds of other children. The lawsuit alleges that children at both facilities have inadequate access to medical care, have experienced hunger, and report being served raw chicken.
The lawsuit argues that prolonged detention at such facilities is in violation of the 1997 Flores settlement – which limits the length of time children can be detained and requires certain standards for care of children. Among other things, the Flores settlement established the standard that officials must place children in state-licensed dependent care facilities "as expeditiously as possible."
The lawsuit claims that the two EISs have not met those standards and urges the court to require the government to issue mandatory standards.
In a statement, HHS said that while it could not speak to the specifics of the filing, "we take our responsibility to provide safe, appropriate care for unaccompanied migrant children very seriously."
A spokesperson said that any reported incident would lead to investigation and disciplinary action, and that at both sites "children receive educational and recreational activities, such as reading, art, and indoor and outdoor athletics."
"Children at both sites have access to medical treatment, laundry service, they can call their family, they meet weekly with case managers, can access legal services and meet with mental and behavioral health counselors. We have increased case management services to unite children safely and expeditiously with family, while we continue to improve and streamline this process," the spokesperson said.
According to HHS, the Pecos EIS houses children for an average of 24 days, while the Fort Bliss EIS houses them for an average of 14 days.
The lawsuit comes as the number of unaccompanied children immigration officers encountered at the border increased again in July. Officers encountered almost 19,000 children at the border, an increase of 24% over June.
The Biden administration has not been using Title 42 public health protections to expel unaccompanied children as it has been doing with single adults and some migrant families. Instead, it has focused on transferring children from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to HHS care, before they are released to a parent or sponsor already in the country.
As of Thursday, HHS was caring for 16,492 children.