CLINT, Texas (AP) — In a tiny Texas town about a half-hour drive from El Paso, a nondescript Border Patrol station operated for six years primarily as a hub for agents on patrol, drawing little scrutiny from immigration attorneys who have been loudly advocating against mass U.S. detention camps that can hold more than 2,000 teens at a time.
And so attorneys visiting the Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, this week said they were shocked to find more than 250 infants, children and teens inside the complex of windowless buildings, trying to care for each other with what they described as inadequate food, water and sanitation.
"This facility wasn't even on our radar before we came down here," said law professor Warren Binford, a member of the team that has interviewed 60 detainees in Clint.
Binford's group warned that because Customs and Border Protection facilities are overwhelmed with migrants, they feared similar situations could be unfolding elsewhere.
Attorney Toby Gialluca, who visited teens and their babies last week in a McAllen, Texas, Border Patrol station, said everyone she interviewed was very sick with high fevers, coughing, and wearing soiled clothes crusted with mucus and dirt after their long trip north. Fifteen kids at Clint had the flu, another 10 were quarantined.
"Everyone is sick. Everyone. They're using their clothes to wipe mucus off the children, wipe vomit off the children. Most of the little children are not fully clothed," she said.
Migrant teens in McAllen told her they were offered frozen ham sandwiches and rotten food, Gialluca said.
In both stations, the children told attorneys that guards instructed girls as young as age 8 to care for the babies and toddlers.
Border Patrol stations are designed to hold people for less than three days, but some children held in Clint and McAllen have been in there for weeks. Legally, migrants under 18 should be moved into Office of Refugee Resettlement care within 72 hours.
But federal officials have said they have hit a breaking point, with too many migrant children and nowhere to put them. That's in part because over the last year, migrant children have been staying longer in federal custody than they had historically, meaning there are fewer shelter beds in the separate Office of Refugee and Resettlement program where kids are sent from the Border Patrol stations.
Unlike privately contracted child detention facilities, Border Patrol stations are federal facilities, exempt from state health and safety standards, according to Texas Department of Health and Human Services spokesman John Reynolds. Child abuse and neglect investigators are not allowed to investigate the stations because they not licensed by the state.
In Clint, Binford described that during interviews with children in a conference room at the facility, "little kids are so tired they have been falling asleep on chairs and at the conference table." An 8-year-old taking care of a very small 4-year-old with matted hair could not convince the younger girl to take a shower, Binford said.
The lawyers inspected the Border Patrol facilities as part of a President Bill Clinton-era legal agreement known as the Flores settlement that governs detention conditions for migrant children and families.
Neha Desai, director of Immigration at the National Center for Youth Law, said Friday that the U.S. government, attorneys involved in the Flores settlement and an independent monitor appointed by the judge overseeing the Flores settlement are in conversation about the situation of children held in McAllen and Clint.
The Clint facility opened in 2013 with little fanfare on a country road not far from the town's water tower, a liquor store and the sandwich shop where Border Patrol agents eat lunch and dinner. The advocate lawyers who negotiated access to the complex said Border Patrol officials knew of their impending visit three weeks in advance.
Customs and Border Protection officials had no immediate comment, but have said for months that the agency is at its breaking point for housing migrants, calling the situation in the El Paso area a humanitarian and security crisis.
In an interview earlier this week with The Associated Press, Customs and Border Protection John Sanders acknowledged that children died after being in the agency's care, and said Border Patrol stations are currently holding 15,000 people — more than three times their maximum capacity of 4,000.
He urged Congress to pass a $4.6 billion emergency funding package includes nearly $3 billion to care for unaccompanied migrant children.
A migrant father, speaking on condition of anonymity because of his immigration status, said he did not know where his daughter was until one of the attorneys visiting Clint this week found his phone number written in permanent marker on a bracelet the girl was wearing.
"She's suffering very much because she's never been alone. She doesn't know these other children," her father said.
Republican Congressman Will Hurd, whose district includes Clint, said "tragic conditions" playing out on the southern border were pushing government agencies, nonprofits and Texas communities to the limit.
"This latest development just further demonstrates the immediate need to reform asylum laws and provide supplemental funding to address the humanitarian crisis at our border," he said.
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Burke reported from San Francisco. Mendoza reported from Santa Cruz, California.