It can be hard to keep up with all of the disturbing stories and images emerging from the nation’s migrant camps and detention centers. In recent weeks, attention has focused on a Border Patrol facility in Clint, near El Paso, housing immigrant children. Lawyers who interviewed children there reported disturbing accounts of filthy children, kids taking care of kids, lice, and lack of medical care. 

But Clint is far from the only Border Patrol center holding children, or adults for that matter, for extended periods in dismal conditions. Karla Vargas, a South Texas lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, was one of three attorneys to visit a Border Patrol intake facility near McAllen last month. She toured the facility and interviewed several children, part of court-ordered monitoring to ensure that the federal government is following the Flores agreement, a 1997 settlement that requires humane treatment of migrant children. Texas Monthly spoke to Vargas over the phone.

Texas Monthly: What’s your role at the Texas Civil Rights Project? 

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Karla Vargas: I am a senior attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. I work in the racial and economic justice program here in South Texas, so we work on a lot of issues dealing with the border, dealing with immigration. 

TM: What was the facility in Weslaco that you visited?

KV: It was a Border Patrol processing facility, what we colloquially know as the hieleras or “ice boxes.” These CBP [Customs and Border Protection] processing centers are the initial centers where Border Patrol takes immigrants after they are detained here along the border. The CBP processing centers are supposed to be a very short stay while these people get transferred to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and ICE are the ones that run the detention centers where individuals are held for longer periods of time or officials can transition into ORR care, and ORR is the Office of Refugee Resettlement that is tasked with holding these kids and releasing them to sponsors.

TM: In what capacity did you visit this facility?

KV: It’s important to note that attorneys generally are not allowed into these CBP processing centers, which is really problematic because there’s no accountability. So we were allowed into this processing center solely because of the ongoing litigation that defines the conditions under which children should be detained by the Department of Homeland Security.

TM: Does the Flores Agreement call for occasional inspection by attorneys?

KV: The Flores lawsuit was filed in the eighties. They reached an agreement in 1997 when the government settled and agreed to specific requirements that they would adhere to when detaining children. But of course, the devil is in the detail and implementation of that agreement is what is causing the problems today. For example, as we had recently heard, what does sanitary conditions mean? Does that include toothbrushes? And so it’s getting down to what is actually contained in this agreement. On a basic level, anyone with just regular decency can understand the conditions under which the children are being held right now are not sanitary conditions.

TM: And so was this visit by court order?

KV: This is not something that Border Patrol was generally open to. This is specifically in regards to the litigation. The attorneys were allowed inside specifically to speak to the children and of course CBP had a lot of restrictions in terms of attorneys accessing these facilities. We were not allowed to go back where the cells are actually located, so even though we asked to be allowed to go back into the cell and take a look at the actual cells where people are being held, CBP vehemently denied access to those facilities. We were only allowed to be in the front part of the processing center where the offices are located, and officers brought the children to us.

TM: And what did you see?

KV: Talking to the children and seeing the children was very telling. The children that I spoke to, one of them was a mother who was herself a child, and she was detained with her infant child. She had been separated from her partner, the child’s father, because he was over-age and she was 17. So she was very distraught because she had been separated from her partner, and also the child because the child was very close to her father. And the child herself had clearly not bathed. 

She had been detained already for about two weeks in the processing center, which is an unfathomable amount of time when the Flores settlement says that children need to be transferred out of DHS custody within 72 hours. There was a lot of the same things you’ve heard in Clint: an inability to shower; being held in overcrowded cells to the point that some people have to stand; they’re kept in the cell all day long, 24 hours a day. They eat in that cell, use the restroom in that cell, they do everything in that cell. The bathroom that’s in that cell offers absolutely no privacy. It’s a toilet with a wall that goes up about mid-waist. 

There apparently were also adults detained in those cells, and that again is a violation of the Flores Agreement because they have unaccompanied children detained in cells with adults that were not related to them. And you have children taking care of other children. The children were noting that the toilet has a sink and they would drink water from that sink. This particular child—the one that was breastfeeding her infant—was talking about her difficulties in breastfeeding in such a crowded facility in front of people with no privacy, with nothing really to cover herself with. She also noted that when she arrived, the cell was very dirty, and she had been there a couple of days when finally someone came in to clean it. She also said that it was so crowded that she had to sit next to the toilet with her infant and that’s the spot that she was able to make for herself, and so that’s where she had to breastfeed her child, next to that dirty toilet.

TM: Was there any way of distinguishing those kids who came into this country unaccompanied versus those kids who came without a parent or legal guardian?

KV: No, not at all. And particularly telling was that one of the children I spoke with mentioned that there had been a young child, I believe she said the child was about 8 or so, a little girl, who kept asking for her father and was crying a lot. So based on my conversations with individuals there and my conversation with the child, my conclusion is that when Border Patrol is separating these children from their parents, they’re popping them in these processing centers with all of these other folks, so there’s no tracking, there’s no special process that I noted for any separated child, because clearly this child had been separated who was asking for her father, and her father was nowhere in sight for days, and then finally, the child was removed from the cell. But who knows where she ended up?

TM: So you’re saying something very significant, because CBP has admitted that they continue to separate children from those who are not parents or legal guardians. But what you’re telling me is that they continue to separate children from parents. Is that correct?

KV: Yes, that is correct. One of the caveats in the litigation put forth to stop the family separation was that CBP can separate them if there’s a criminal history, and so CBP has pretty much run with that. They are using any criminal history, including a previous misdemeanor conviction for illegal entry, as the basis for separating these children. And so we have seen things like an individual who had a driving without a license ten years ago, and that being used as an excuse to separate that parent from their child. We have seen ten, fifteen-year-old DUI convictions, which of course we’re not condoning DUIs or anything like that, but using that as a basis to argue that this person is not suitable to be with their child is outrageous. And it’s something that would never really be an issue if that were a family law court or was being adjudicated through our regular civil process.

TM: Was there bedding for them to lie down for sleeping?

KV: No, it’s the same thing [as Clint]. There’s a cell with a cement bench. The kids, sometimes they would get a mylar blanket, sometimes they grab one that happens to be there, sometimes they’re not given one. The one thing that the kids did note, which I found particularly interesting or harmful, is that for whatever reason, the officers, the Border Patrol agents go in at like 5:00, 6:00 in the morning and take away the mattresses, to take away the mylar blanket, and there’s no reason why. They’re not explained why, so these kids are woken up, you know, assuming they’re even able to sleep in these cold, crowded cells. Whatever little comfort they had by way of a tiny, thin mattress is taken away at 5:00, 6:00 in the morning when these officers come in and just take everything from them.

TM: I wanted to talk to people like you to ask whether Clint was an outlier in terms of what was going on there? Do you believe that this situation is part and parcel of the immigration system as it stands right now?

KV: Yes. Very much so. Like I’ve said, I’ve worked in this field for almost a decade, and you’ve always heard these stories, but not to the extent and the degree to which we’re hearing them now. CBP processing centers have never been a good place, they’ve always been called las hieleras as far as I can recall. But we’ve definitely seen a race to the bottom in terms of the dehumanization of immigrants that have allowed these horrific conditions to occur. We have seen the deaths of children under CBP care or just after being released by CBP. And one would think that that would raise a red flag about the conditions. And here we are now, with children being held in these conditions.

Unfortunately, I think that the culture that the administration has really put forth, the perception of immigrants has really driven this race to the bottom in terms of basic care and the way in which we treat immigrants that are arriving into our country regardless of whether or not they are asylum seekers. At the end of the day, they are human beings. There’s no excuse for the way in which our country is right now holding them and treating them.

TM: What can be done to improve the situation?

KV: I think that there really needs to be a level of accountability with CBP. I think, unfortunately, I think that the [emergency funding] bill that just passed through Congress is really harmful because it’s simply throwing money at this problem, and that is not the issue. The issue is not the lack of money. The issue is the attention that this administration has given solely on enforcement and hasn’t focused any resources or prioritized in any way the processing and adjudication of these individuals, and so we’re seeing a backlog at every single level of the system, and it’s therefore aggravating all these intake centers. So the problem is the administration focusing on enforcement, focusing on detaining people, not focusing on resources and training to ensure that, for example, ORR is releasing these children to sponsors in a timely manner because we have children who are in ORR care for months.

What we need is some external accountability. The attorneys in the Flores litigation are requesting to have an outside monitor that is allowed to come in without notice. Those are the types of things that we need. The bill that was rejected by Congress would have allowed congressional representatives to visit these facilities without any notice, that is what we need. We need people outside of the Department of Homeland Security who are allowed to go in there without notice because we that we cannot entrust DHS to police itself.

TM: How has this affected you emotionally?

KV: That’s a more difficult question. I think that representing these children even under the best circumstances is difficult. These are kids that are fleeing unimaginable situations, situations that if most American had any semblance of understanding of what these kids are fleeing, perhaps the perception would change, although where we are now, I don’t have too much hope of that. I just do not understand, regardless of what your stance is on immigration, being OK with the way in which we’re treating our fellow human beings. And I understand that our sympathy as society don’t necessarily extend to adults, but they should. You’ve got to stop and think, Why would someone do that? Why would someone risk so many dangers, whether it’s crossing through Mexico and encountering all of the drug cartels and all of the organizations that are attacking immigrants. If these people are willing to subject themselves to something so dangerous, how bad are those conditions that they’re fleeing? 

Our level of collective humanity has just really diminished to the point that is really baffling, and I think that I’m having a harder time dealing and understanding that than anything else. For me the immigration struggle is very personal, I’m a first generation here in the United States, and so I understand the absolute privilege that I have that luck threw my way in being born here in this country. And so that’s something, it’s very personal to me and I understand that not everyone has that, but again, at the end of the day, these are human beings that are suffering and regardless of what your political stance is, how are you OK with that?

 This conversation was edited for clarity and length.