A Border Patrol vehicle drags tires to smooth the ground next to the border fence in the Yuma Sector.

Cronkite News Service

Claiming “systemic abuse” of children who arrive in this country alone, immigrant rights groups on Wednesday this morning the Department of Homeland Security conduct an immediate investigation.

The 25-page complaint details more than 100 specific allegations of children who told workers for these groups that they have been subjected to various forms of abuse, harassment and other harms at the hands of the Border Patrol.

There are allegations of denial of medical care, including a child whose asthma medication was confiscated while she suffered multiple asthma attacks.

“Children consistently reported being held in unsanitary, overcrowded and freezing-cold cells, and roughly 70 percent reported being held beyond the legally mandated 72-hour period,” the complaint says.

Officials from Homeland Security did not immediately respond to the allegations. But there already was an admission earlier this week from senior officials at the Obama administration of at least that charge of children kept in Border Patrol custody beyond the 72 hours the agency has to turn them over to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Those officials said the problem is directly attributable to the sudden influx of unaccompanied minors, a figure Border Patrol puts at more than 47,000 for the prior nine months. That compares with fewer than 25,000 at the same time a year earlier.

But representatives of the organizations filing the complaint said this failure to meet the deadline – and all the allegations of abuse – are not new problems. What the crush does, according to James Lyall with the American Civil Liberties Union, is make it more important than ever to deal with the underlying problems at Border Patrol.

“The influx of additional numbers of children only makes it more likely that more kids are going to be coming into contact with more agents for longer periods of time,” he said. Lyall said that is why the organizations are asking – and in a very public way – for Homeland Security to investigate its own rather than bring suit on a case-by-case basis.

Allegations in the complaint include:

- Rape of a 15-year-old in a cave by a Customs and Border Protection official;

- A 13-year-old boy molested by adults in the same holding cell;

- Asthma medications taken away from a 14-year-old girl;

- Lack of blankets and milk for teen mothers for themselves and their children.

- Denial of medical treatment to a severely developmentally disabled and undernourished 7-year-old boy to the point he had to be hospitalized;

Joe Anderson with Americans for Immigrant Justice called that last incident “a spectacular and disturbing example of the great need for the government to do something right now.”

Only thing is, the complaining groups have little actual proof.

Erika Pinheiro at the Esparanza Immigrant Rights Project said one problem is that organizations like hers do not get to talk to the children until after they were turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services – and outside the scope of Homeland Security.

She said most of the approximately 1,000 children her organization initially interviewed, asked how they were treated, would say “fine.” But that, Pinheiro said, was not the right question.

“We started asking specific, pointed questions about the conditions, whether they had been specifically abused, whether they'd been shackled during transport,” she said. Those questions, Pinheiro said, revealed specific complaints of abuse.

Ashley Huebner, an attorney at the National Immigration Justice Center, acknowledged what also are lacking are some details.

She said the children, interviewed days or weeks after being detained by Border Patrol, have no idea where they were they were kept or the names of the officers involved. But Huebner said the stories are to be believed.

“One way that sort of corroborates these claims is the consistency of the types of claims we heard from these children,” she said.

“The sheer volume and consistency of these complaints reflects longstanding, systemic problems with Customs and Border Protection practices,” the complaint says. And it says this isn't a new phenomenon, with complaints of “documented civil rights violations” having been made “for years.”

Who would have access to records and witnesses would be Customs and Border Protection. Huebner said the complaint to Homeland Security provides specific identifying information on each child, enough for the agency to follow up, interview those involved and decide if the children's rights were violated.

Huebner dismissed questions of whether some of these children are being lured to the United States through rumors that, once they get here, they will get amnesty.

“The primary reason these children are coming is because of 'push' factors, because of severe violence and poverty in their home countries,” she said.

She conceded, though, that some children may make the trek because they have heard that, if they make it into this country, they will be released into the custody of relatives.

“But these children would not be making such an incredibly dangerous journey to come to the United States, at risk to their life in many cases, if there wasn't such a terrible condition back in their home country that was pushing them to come this way,” she said.

Anderson called it a “perpetual myth” of children being lured to this country, perhaps to reunite with family.

“These kids are frequently leaving their family,” he said.

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