Migrant children held in rooms so cramped they couldn’t all sit, never mind lie down. Roll calls held at midnight, 3, 6 and 9 in the morning. Food that tasted like dirt, water like chlorine. Cruel guards who in one instance threw food on the floor, instigating fights as hungry kids scrambled to get it.
These are some of the experiences described in a declaration based on interviews with children who spent time in border detention facilities and are now living in Washington.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson plans to file the declaration as he and 19 other attorneys general challenge a Trump administration proposal that would indefinitely detain migrant families and override current detention standards for children.
The attorneys general filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court in California – the latest skirmish in a long-running battle over President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
Led by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, the suit argues the administration’s proposal violates due process and procedures for changing federal law while risking the health and well-being of immigrant children.
“For God’s sake, treat children with a little bit of humanity,” Ferguson said at a Monday news conference.
He added that every Washingtonian should read the 26-page declaration, which he said revealed “appalling” and “prison-like” conditions. It arises from state officials’ interviews last month with 28 children ages 12 to 17, most of whom were detained in Border Patrol facilities over the last year.
At the time of the interviews, conducted as part of the state’s oversight authority, the children had been released from detention and were living in facilities in Washington run by nonprofits that contract with the federal government.
The feds transfer hundreds of children a year to this state — 566 in the latest fiscal year ending in July. Many are released to family members, but those with no “sponsors” immediately available are sent to local facilities, primarily group homes and shelters, until a sponsor can be found or their immigration case runs its course.
The lawsuit filed Monday seeks to stop a proposed regulation, published Friday, that would change standards outlined in a longstanding court-ordered settlement, known as the Flores agreement. That agreement holds that children can be held with their parents for no longer than 20 days.
It also mandates safe and sanitary conditions for children, and requires them to be transferred to state-licensed facilities or state-approved foster care as soon as possible.
In addition to allowing for longer detention, the proposed regulation — which must be approved by a federal judge — removes the state’s role in regulating facilities where kids are held.
That would mean the state wouldn’t be able to carry out the kind of interviews it did with the children cited in the declaration, Ferguson noted at the news conference, and he would have no way of knowing about detention conditions.
Federal officials say the proposed regulation is needed to deter migrants from entering the U.S. illegally, and to stop the current surge of people from Central America.
“What this will do is to substantially increase our ability to end the catch and release challenges that have fueled this crisis,” Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan said in a news conference last week. Administration officials complain that releasing migrants who are in the country illegally after they spend a short time in detention fails to hold them accountable and encourages more to come.
A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Washington’s contribution to the lawsuit goes further than attacking the proposed regulation. It also suggests that the administration is failing to abide by even the current standards.
The declaration paints a haunting picture of conditions in border facilities. It confirms details already reported by other children, lawyers and advocates, such as lights kept on 24 hours a day, lack of access to toothpaste, soap and regular showers, and inadequate food.
Several of the children interviewed by officials from the state Department of Children, Youth and Families said they were given nothing but burritos, which were cold or still frozen. Another young man, a 17-year-old from Honduras, said he was offered one bottle of water and one sandwich during 24 hours of detention.
“The bread was very hard and tasted like dirt,” according to the declaration.
Still another boy from Honduras, 12 years old, noted he was allowed to shower but given shampoo for dogs.
Other details given by the children, most of them visibly upset as they discussed their experiences, were unfamiliar to the state attorney general’s office, according to spokeswoman Brionna Aho.
They include the throwing of food on the floor, giving menstruating girls only one sanitary pad a day and methods of punishing children — such as being locked in a dark room, like one 6-year-old who accidentally clogged a toilet.
Children viewed as misbehaving might get only an apple and water for breakfast and lunch, or, if they weren’t sleeping when they were supposed to, be made to stand until they were ready to do so.
Sleeping, they said, was no easy matter. Aside from the lights and the roll calls, the children said they were expected to rest on thin mats or concrete floors, and given “aluminum” blankets that offered little protection against rooms kept constantly cold by air conditioners.
Kids weren’t allowed to keep their sweaters, and if they complained about the cold, a guard might turn the air conditioning up, according to the declaration.
“By contrast, the children described their treatment in the state-licensed facilities to be much better,” according to the declaration. The kids said they were generally well-treated by staff, had adequate food and access to recreation and doctors.
The fight over the proposed regulation won’t necessarily change existing conditions in border facilities. But if the regulation isn’t enacted, the states can further their efforts to enforce the rules laid out by the Flores agreement, said Colleen Melody, civil-rights division chief of Ferguson’s office.
“It’s gives us a lot more tools,” she said, noting that the “firepower” of 20 attorneys general would come into play.