SAN DIEGO -- Unaccompanied children arrested by U.S. border authorities are packed in frigid cells and sleep on hard floors without enough food or medical care, advocacy groups said in a complaint Wednesday that alleges widespread abuses amid a surge of illegal crossings by young immigrants from strife-torn Central American countries.
The Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project and four other groups produced 116 allegations of abuse of children who were in Customs and Border Protection custody. They said more than 80 percent received inadequate food and water, about half were denied medical care, and about one of every four was physically abused.
A 13-year-old boy said he was threatened by an official with a metal rod and was later sexually molested while in custody, a 14-year-old girl reported her asthma inhaler was confiscated, and a 14-year-old boy was unable to sleep for five days because the lights were always on. A 16-year-old boy said an official told him, "You are in my country now, and we are going to bury you in a hole."
The allegations described in the administrative complaint to the Department of Homeland Security were based on interviews with the children from around March to May. The complaint doesn't provide dates of the alleged abuse, but authors said much of it occurred over the last year. The locations are not listed because, the authors said, the children were frequently shuttled around and didn't know where they were.
The children were identified only by initials in a 25-page version of the complaint that was made public but the authors said they provided names and other biographical information to the Homeland Security's inspector general and office civil rights and civil liberties. They urged the department to investigate the complaints, punish any wrongdoing and make its findings public.
Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that it does not tolerate misconduct and was providing food, medical care and other basic services under constant supervision, while working to transfer children to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours, as required by law. It said "extraordinary measures" were being taken in response to an overwhelming tide of children crossing in South Texas. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"This should be the final straw. These children's stories are horrific," said James Lyall of the American Civil Liberties Union's Border Litigation Project, which joined Americans for Immigrant Justice, the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Florence Immigrant Rights & Refugee Project. The groups work closely with the children after they are released.
Customs and Border Protection arrested 47,017 unaccompanied children on the border from October through May, up 92 percent from the same period a year earlier. A draft Border Patrol memorandum estimates that number could reach 90,000 in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, up from a previous government estimate of 60,000.
Last week, President Barack Obama declared a crisis and appointed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to lead the government's response. Hundreds of children have been flown to a makeshift shelter at a Border Patrol station in Nogales, Arizona, while the Defense Department prepares military bases in California, Oklahoma and Texas, for temporary housing.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday that violence in Central America is main driver but acknowledged that parents likely know their children will be released to the Department of Health and Human Services, "which very often means reuniting them with their parents."