Along with general deprivation of hygiene as well as overcrowding in cold and unfurnished cage-like cells, migrant children held in detention centers along the southern border also describe being hungry all the time and lacking clean drinking water.
These bleak scenes of suffering at these Customs and Border Protection compounds emerged in recent reports and statements collected by immigrant rights attorneys last week while visiting the facilities, and have been published in connection with a lawsuit against the Trump administration challenging the inhumane conditions at the border. The suit, filed on Wednesday by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, asks a judge to order the immediate inspection by public health officials of Border Patrol detention centers in El Paso, Texas, and the Rio Grande Valley, to provide the children with basic necessities — like a nutritious diet — and medical care, and to require that the CBP immediately start processing the children for release to parents and relatives, as required by the 1997 Flores settlement.
According to the suit, children at detention centers “are often given food that is not fully cooked or still frozen.” The snacks and three meals served a day — instant oatmeal, instant ramen, and a microwaved burrito, as confirmed by Aaron Hull, chief of the CBP in El Paso — do not contain fruits and vegetables. Everyone, from babies to nursing teen mothers, is given the same type and quantity of food regardless of caloric needs, Elora Mukherjee, a lawyer who interviewed children at a Texas holding facility, told The Atlantic.
Infants and children are losing weight because of the quality and quantity of the food being provided, the suit alleges. One 12-year-old boy said: “I’m so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger … I’m too scared to ask the officials here for any more food, even though there is not enough food here for me.”
The suit also outlines an inadequate access to clean drinking water. Often the only available water tastes like chlorine or bleach and is not potable. Dr. Lucio Sevier, a physician who visited the facilities, said that nursing mothers reported drinking only 1.5 liters of water offered with meals every day — a much lower amount than the two liters required by average-sized adults to maintain adequate hydration, and the three liters required by breastfeeding mothers to produce adequate nutrition for their babies. The suit also details a lack of access to a place for parents to wash their babies’ formula bottles, increasing the risk of exposing infants to health hazards connected to spoiled formula. All the children Dr. Sevier saw in the detention centers showed evidence of trauma. “I mean, imagine your own children there,” she told ABC News. “I can’t imagine my child being there and not being broken.”
With the lack of such basic necessities, there have been reports of Border Patrol officers using food to manipulate or coax children into following their orders. In one instance, according to NPR reports, lawyers said that an agent “used a lollipop to coax a crying 6-year-old boy back into his cell.” In another story gleaned from interviews with children, an attorney told The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, guards used extra food as a reward to manipulate an older teen into helping keep order in his cell on their behalf.
There is no ethical way to argue against providing a child (or anyone) the basic necessities of food and water, hygiene, shelter, and safety. With each passing day, migrant children, separated from the guardians who accompanied them to this country and detained from the relatives who wait for them here with warm beds and hot plates of food, are being told that they do not deserve those human essentials.