On Thursday and Friday, 26 immigration lawyers and five medical experts will visit Casa Padre, America’s largest migrant children’s shelter. These two days mark the first time that a large group of lawyers and child experts has been able to conduct in-depth interviews with children who were separated from their parents as a result of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy toward migrants.
Casa Padre houses almost 1,500 boys ages 10 to 17 in Brownsville, Texas. Roughly 200 of them were separated from parents after crossing the border. In mid-June, journalists who were allowed into the facility said it resembled a “prison or jail” and described how kids slept in overcrowded spaces and were allowed only two hours outside each day.
Since then, the media haven’t been allowed back inside, and most lawyers also aren’t given access to Casa Padre. But a small group of attorneys has the right to enter all Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities where unaccompanied children are held because of a landmark immigration settlement.
The class-action lawsuit was filed in 1985, on behalf of a 15-year-old girl named Jenny Lisette Flores from El Salvador, who, despite having an aunt in the U.S., was held for two months in a motel surrounded by barbed-wire fence. There was no place for the kids to exercise or go to school. The case ended in 1997 with the Flores settlement, which, in addition to ensuring that children be speedily reunited with a guardian and that facilities meet basic child welfare standards, allows the plaintiffs’ lawyers to visit and monitor the conditions at ORR shelters.
Peter Schey, one of the lead lawyers on the Flores case and the executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law Foundation, has been visiting these facilities for the past 20 years. He’s assembled a group of 31 lawyers and medical experts who will conduct hourlong interviews with each separated boy at Casa Padre.
Schey wants to know whether the children have been allowed to communicate with their parents and if they know where their mothers and fathers are. Though the Flores settlement requires the ORR to notify unaccompanied minors of their legal rights and to release them to their parents, legal guardians or relatives as quickly as possible, Schey said some kids aren’t given that basic information.
Instead, he says, they are usually in emotional distress, unsure of how long they’ll be detained and to whom they’ll be released. Because the Trump policy set in motion criminal prosecutions for illegal entry, more than 2,000 parents were locked up separately from their kids and, in some cases, have already been deported without their children.
“Some of them are certainly traumatized,” Schey said of the boys. “We generally find they are bewildered and they have no idea what their legal rights are. They are often really frustrated and anxious and depressed.”
The Flores settlement also outlines “minimum standards” for each facility, including proper access to food, education, medical care, recreation and family visits. Schey will find out whether the boys have been seeing doctors, playing outside and sleeping well.
On recent inspections of roughly eight Border Patrol stations, Schey found some were very cold and that kids didn’t have access to blankets and sleeping mats. “We still found situations where kids were detained for 48 hours with no soap and water. [They had] no change in clothing, and it was soiled.”
In addition to interviewing children, his team will tour Casa Padre for a few hours Thursday morning. But Carlos Holguín, general counsel at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law Foundation, said the inspections often amount to a “dog-and-pony show” in which the staff creates a false impression of the conditions. He said that at one facility, workers installed a vending machine right before his arrival.
While Holguín hasn’t been to Casa Padre and won’t be participating in this round of interviews, he said it seemed like an “overly secure place” for kids. “They are not supposed to be in detention centers. They are supposed to be in places where children can go to public schools and are permitted to go to the library and to the movies. There should not be jail-like conditions and locked doors and metal detectors.”
Schey has already told government officials he plans to visit 15 more ORR facilities, and his goal is to have a team inspect all shelters where separated children are being held.
On July 27, the attorney will present his initial findings at a hearing in Los Angeles before U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee. He will use the interviews with children to assess whether Border Patrol stations, ICE facilities and ORR shelters are complying with the Flores agreement.
Schey said the site visits his team does are a crucial part of ensuring the “safety and well-being of detained children.”
“Without them, we would have no way to know whether the government is complying with the settlement.”