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‘Very young, very scared’: Migrant children languish in US custody, lawyers say



(NEW YORK) — As the number of unaccompanied minors at the southern border keeps growing, legal advocates checking on conditions for migrant children held in U.S. custody report many are afraid, unable to contact family members and have limited access to the outdoors.

“What we saw this time was a lot of very young, very scared children,” Leecia Welch, Senior Director of Child Welfare at the National Center for Youth Law, told ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Cecelia Vega.

The children, some as young as one-year-old, were held in a large, crowded tent partitioned by clear plastic, the lawyers said. Some have been held for longer than a week, according to the lawyers’ accounts, awaiting transfer to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“It just makes it all the more scary for them, because … these are places that no child should have to be in on their own,” Welch said in the interview.

Children said every few days they were allowed into a courtyard for about 20 minutes, but the lawyers said some of them may have gone longer than that without seeing the sun. The lawyers were not permitted to see inside the living quarters for themselves and instead based their accounts on interviews with more than a dozen children.

“We are fully aware of the extraordinary complexity involved with coordination of multiple agencies and a web of statutory requirements but we believe that there are ways to overcome these obstacles and frankly we think it’s imperative to do so,” Neha Desai, Director of Immigration at the National Center for Youth Law, told ABC’s Vega in an interview.

When children attempt to cross the border alone and are apprehended by Border Patrol, they are placed temporarily in Customs and Border Protection custody while they wait for transfer to the U.S. refugee resettlement office, which is responsible for placing children with sponsors.

Two Customs and Border Protection officials, who declined to be named to discuss interagency deliberations, pointed to HHS as the source of the backlog. There are currently some 8,800 minors in HHS care, according to sources with knowledge of the data.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday the current conditions for children are “not acceptable.”

“But I think the challenge here is that there are only — there are not that many options,” she added.

At her press briefing, Psaki continued to blame the Trump administration for creating a system she said was “dismantled and unprepared,” and urged patience while the Biden administration implements its new approach.

“It’s going to take some time,” she said.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement on Sunday opened a new facility to assist in processing unaccompanied children before they are transferred to longer-term care.

“This approach will help decrease overcrowding at CBP facilities and ensure children are moved into ORR shelters, where children receive educational, medical, mental health, and recreational services until they can be unified with families or sponsors without undue delay,” ORR said in a statement.

Located in Midland, Texas, the “Emergency Intake Site” is a temporary center where minors will be processed before they are transferred to longer-term holding or shelter care and will be serviced in part by the American Red Cross.

“We’ll have that location filled up pretty soon,” one CBP official said, referring to the large number of minors currently in CBP custody and awaiting transfer.

Independent legal monitors tasked with oversight of detained minors reported in court documents on Friday that overcrowding seen at CBP facilities makes detention “unsafe and likely unsanitary.”

The filing urged CBP to officially report on the custody numbers and length of time in custody while taking extra measures to reduce the number of detained children.

“Such efforts should be aimed at alleviating the current massive overcrowding at CBP facilities by enhancing and streamlining the process available to achieve the safe and prompt release of all detained minors who are not flight risks or a danger,” the lawyers working on behalf of the children wrote.

CBP did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News about the conditions for the children in custody.

ABC News’ Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.

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