Transcript

Kids Caught in the Crackdown

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MARTIN:

During the summer, my uncle asked me if wanted to go learn the job that he was doing.

My mom, she wanted me to go so that I can see how hard it is to work out in the sun. What they did was just started a house from the bottom to the top. I always like working with my hands and just learning new things.

Then that day when we were heading back, I was on my phone, and Hector, he starts saying that, "Nah, the cops are coming."

So my uncle pulls over and all he tells us is, "Just relax. Nothing's wrong."

The cop came, started asking for our papers, if we had any identification—everything.

MALE POLICE OFFICER:

What do you have, a passport? Where are you from? From Mexico?

I’ve got six subjects. One of them’s out of New York state, but the other ones are all from Mexico. I was going to see if you could check them for me. I’m going to let you talk to the 16-year-old, right quick.

MALE RADIO VOICE:

OK.

MARTIN:

He took me out and made me talk to Border Patrol.

MALE RADIO VOICE:

What’s your name?

MARTIN:

Martin.

MALE RADIO VOICE:

Where are you from, man? Where were you born?

MARTIN:

Michoacán.

MALE RADIO VOICE:

Do you have documents?

MARTIN:

No, sir.

We were all handcuffed, and I started asking the cops, "What's happening? What are they going to do to us?" But he just told us that we weren't supposed to be here, and because we were illegal, Border Patrol was going to come get us.

As soon as I was in the back of the car, I just felt like everything was over.

DAFFODIL ALTAN, Correspondent:

That night in June 2019 was the beginning of a long journey for Martin. It would land him hundreds of miles from home.

MARTIN:

Have you ever been to a stadium? It was like a stadium but with cages inside, and that's where they kept all the people.

And when we walked in there we just saw people crying, we saw little kids crying. They put me in the cage; I was with around 12 other younger minors.

I didn't really know what to think; I was like, "Is this prison, or what is this?"

I kinda broke down. I didn't know what to do.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

He had ended up in a massive U.S. Border Patrol holding pen in McAllen, Texas.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

A bleak picture of conditions for migrant children.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

We are seeing sick children, we are seeing dirty children, we are seeing hungry children—

MALE NEWSREADER:

—lawyers have interviewed 60 children saying there is not enough food, water or sanitation. They also say—

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Martin had spent most of his life in the U.S., but it didn’t matter. Like tens of thousands of kids who had recently crossed the border on their own or had been separated from their parents, he was handed over to a federal agency—the Department of Health and Human Services.

MARTHA MENDOZA, The Associated Press:

When a child arrives at the U.S. border, they are taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, whose mission is to protect the security of the United States; they're not set up to take care of anybody.

They then turn that child over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is an agency whose mission is to take care of people.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

I’ve been reporting on the lives of undocumented people in America for the past decade.

MARTHA MENDOZA:

These kids are getting sent all around the country—

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

With The Associated Press, we’ve been investigating HHS's detention system for migrant children.

GARANCE BURKE:

We're going to end up with sort of like a generation of migrant kids who are going to have this kind of lasting trauma—

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

My partners at the AP, investigative reporters Garance Burke and Martha Mendoza, have been on this story for years. They obtained confidential HHS data showing where migrant children are being held and how many of them are in detention at any given time.

GARANCE BURKE, The Associated Press:

What we found in our reporting is that never before had there been this many children held inside the government’s network of shelters for migrant kids. The majority of those kids were in facilities with more than 100 or 1,000 other children—so mass facilities where psychiatrists say kids start to feel like just another number.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

HHS’s own numbers now show that over the past year nearly 70,000 migrant children have been held without their parents, more than any other time on record and more than any other country in the world.

One of HHS’s largest facilities is an emergency influx shelter in Homestead, Florida.

That’s where Martin ended up in June 2019. At the time, nearly one out of every five migrant kids in HHS custody was being held there.

MARTIN:

When we arrived there, you could just see there was a couple of guards, armed guards by the entrance. Once we went inside we saw kids playing outside; there was kids playing soccer. In my head what I was thinking was, this is a way better place than where I was in immigration. But this place is not really home, so I didn't really feel safe at the same time.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

There were more than 2,000 teenagers being held at Homestead.

JONATHAN HAYES, Director, HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement:

With very high numbers of children coming across the border at times, HHS has to be able to meet its responsibility, both legally and morally, to have a place for these children to go; and I would say that even one of our influx shelters is better than a CBP processing center.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Jonathan Hayes is the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is legally required to care for migrant children within HHS. He sat down with the AP’s Garance Burke.

GARANCE BURKE:

So why would your agency hold so many children together, both in influx shelters and just very large shelters?

JONATHAN HAYES:

There were some periods where we were receiving 400 to 500 kids every day. You may look at a shelter with 500 kids and realize, I could fill up one of those in one day, potentially.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

HHS would not allow us to bring cameras inside Homestead, despite repeated requests. But over the past year, we’ve spoken to numerous kids who’ve been detained.

Including this girl, who says she spent a month and a half inside Homestead waiting to be reunited with her father. She asked us to disguise her voice out of concerns for her immigration status.

GIRL:

[Speaking Spanish] It seemed pretty; I mean, it’s pretty there, but at the same it wasn’t, because there were so many kids. There were rules and rules, and every day was the same routine.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

She says most of the day was spent in classrooms, with only one hour of outdoor time.

GIRL:

[Speaking Spanish] I was frustrated because I wanted to break the rules, but I couldn’t. I had to follow the rules. If I misbehaved they would write me up.

It was like prison, because I felt very trapped. I felt frustrated and desperate.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

The mass detention of children at Homestead and other HHS sites stems in part from a little-known decision by the Trump administration.

In 2018, HHS started doing extensive background checks on the children’s sponsors, mostly relatives trying to claim them from detention.

MARTHA MENDOZA:

They began vetting sponsors and families to the extreme. Anybody in a house where these kids were going to go to would have to be fingerprinted, background checked and fully screened, which took a long time.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

While the extreme vetting was in effect, the time kids were spending in HHS shelters went from a few weeks to months.

JONATHAN HAYES:

Some of the additional changes that did come to be I think did have an impact on slowing down the process in that. But it’s always a balance between the safety of the children, but also being able to discharge them as quickly but as safely as possible.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

In Florida this past summer, we met a woman who'd been trying to get her nephew out of Homestead.

XIOMARA:

[Speaking Spanish] Jarin is a humble boy. He is very quiet, very easygoing.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Xiomara says her 16-year-old nephew, Jarin, left Honduras because gangs were trying to recruit him.

XIOMARA:

[Speaking Spanish] On the news, I heard that children can't be in a shelter for more than a month. But they still haven't released him to me. And that’s worrisome.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Though she herself is undocumented, Xiomara says she gave HHS everything they asked for, but Jarin had been in detention for almost four months.

XIOMARA:

[Speaking Spanish] They asked me for this. I sent them my work permit, my Social Security number. I sent them all the paperwork so they could see I wasn’t doing anything illegal.

But when I’d talk to him, he’d tell me, “They’re saying you’re not my aunt.” The caseworker told him, “She is not your aunt and she wants to kidnap you.” He started to cry. He feels very—how do you say it? What is the word? Traumatized.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

[Speaking Spanish] Why do you feel that it's traumatic?

XIOMARA:

[Speaking Spanish] Because it’s not easy to be locked in. You feel hopeless.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Along with the extreme vetting, we found there was another factor pushing up the number of kids in detention: HHS was sharing information with ICE about sponsors coming to claim their children.

ANDREW LORENZEN-STRAIT:

What it was meant to do was to cast a larger net after those that could be particularly targeted for apprehensions.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Andrew Lorenzen-Strait was a deputy assistant director of ICE at the time. In May 2018, he helped write the agreement between the two agencies.

ANDREW LORENZEN-STRAIT:

I thought we were going to be looking at how we care for kids that may have these issues of being taken advantage of—trafficked, smuggled.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Instead, ICE used the information to apprehend sponsors. In the months following the agreement, the agency says around 330 people were arrested.

ANDREW LORENZEN-STRAIT:

There is a total chilling effect of coming forward because they believe they are going to be picked up by ICE. The outcomes of that partnership were devastating to the migrant community.

GARANCE BURKE:

In some of the government paperwork I’ve seen, there are fewer sponsors coming forward now, and that that’s led to more children being in custody.

JONATHAN HAYES:

I have absolutely heard some anecdotal conversations and comments that there was some examples of sponsors that were concerned. However, I really reject the very premise that there’s this very widespread pattern.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

ICE says it’s not arresting people in this way anymore. But the fear remains.

At her home in Texas, Martin’s mother was worried about being arrested as she searched for her son.

MARTIN'S MOTHER:

[Speaking Spanish] The only thing they wanted was information from me. Every time they called, they asked for our home address. And again, our home address. It was always the same thing, but they wouldn’t tell me where they had him.

I've heard on the news that they’re taking people who are not legal, so it’s only logical that those of us in this situation are afraid. And sometimes I would think wherever I go to pick up my son, they'll detain me, as well. But I would think, I have to do it. If I don’t do it, they won’t tell me anything about my son, and I want to know where he is.

This is Martin when he was 3 years old. He's really little here.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Martin was born in Mexico and brought to the U.S. when he was 9 months old.

MARTIN'S MOTHER:

[Speaking Spanish] He's a good person. He's unique. As a mother, I've never had to worry about him doing his homework.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

But even undocumented kids like him, who’ve been here most of their lives, have been detained.

MARTIN'S MOTHER:

[Speaking Spanish] After I learned he was in Homestead, I told them I want to talk to him. I want to know he is all right.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

As more children were being held, and for longer times, we began hearing from human rights advocates and mental health experts who’d been inside Homestead.

NEHA DESAI, National Center for Youth Law:

Never have I ever been to a facility that has 2,000-plus children in one place. It's a deeply unnatural state.

We've been monitoring facilities all over the country—

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Neha Desai is part of a group of attorneys who monitor the conditions for migrant children inside detention facilities.

NEHA DESAI:

What we know from decades and decades of research is the way we should treat these kids is in the most homelike setting, in the least-restrictive setting possible.

Children at Homestead are monitored 24/7 by security guards. Children tell me that they can't walk 5 feet to go to bathroom by themselves. These children are not free to leave.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Psychologist Yenys Castillo was brought in to Homestead to assess the impact of detention.

YENYS CASTILLO, Psychologist:

All of the children in Homestead said, "We are prisoners; we’re detained; we cannot leave."

It was a very regimented place. Children were walking, and there was this one child, and he was crying. So I asked the children, "How come I saw a child crying, and nobody was addressing that child?" And they said that they were not allowed to talk to one another most of the time, and then they’re not allowed to touch one another, and they’re not allowed to offer comfort.

So we tend to see teenagers as mini-adults. They're not adults. They cannot regulate their emotions. They don't think of the future as we do. They think, "This is going to last forever."

The longer they stay in these detention conditions, the more they deteriorate psychologically.

GIRL:

[Speaking Spanish] I didn’t want to be there. I became desperate. I felt... so alone.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

[Speaking Spanish] What were your sleeping arrangements?

GIRL:

[Speaking Spanish] There was a room, but we couldn’t see out. We couldn’t see anything.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

[Speaking Spanish] There were no windows?

GIRL:

[Speaking Spanish] There were—

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

[Speaking Spanish] And what happened if you tried to open the windows to see?

GIRL:

[Speaking Spanish] The alarms would off. The windows had alarms.

I felt like I was in prison. I've never been in prison before, but I think it's like that.

JONATHAN HAYES:

The security around any of our shelters is more to keep people out than to keep people in, especially with some of the older children. These aren’t secure facilities that are impossible to get out of. The overwhelming majority—the near unanimous number of children in our care are grateful.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

There are now approximately 170 HHS shelter programs for migrant kids across the country, from small foster care sites to places like Homestead.

HHS houses the youngest migrants—infants and toddlers—in a handful of facilities they call “tender age shelters."

We were recently given rare access to this shelter holding babies and teenage mothers in San Benito, Texas.

MELISSA AGUILAR, Executive director, CHS shelter care programs:

This is our busy hallway. There’s constantly children playing, nursing, eating—

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Melissa Aguilar is the director of shelter programs for Comprehensive Health Services, a private company that runs the shelter.

MELISSA AGUILAR:

We focus on 0 to 17. So, we have mothers in care. We have the capacity to service pregnant teenagers, and they can also care for their babies here.

A staff said it earlier today, and she said it best: that the children are borrowed; they're borrowed for our purpose, right? So a lot of times when something is borrowed, you take care of them better than you would something that is your own.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

The company runs five other shelters, including Homestead, and among its leadership is former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who’d backed the policy of forcibly separating kids from their families at the border.

Over the past year, the government has paid CHS nearly $300 million.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

By its very definition, when you're for-profit, your job as a company is to make profit. So some people might say then, isn't there then an incentive to detain kids?

MELISSA AGUILAR:

There is a profit. There is a price incentive, but it's not a detention incentive. The question about "Is there incentive to detain children?"—absolutely not.

And I think that it's so important for everybody to understand that we're not detaining children; we're not separating children; we're caring for children.

GARANCE BURKE:

Morally, ethically, is it OK for a for-profit company to make money from holding children in mass facilities that they cannot leave?

JONATHAN HAYES:

They’re not the ones determining what kids are coming there, and they don’t really have as much say over who stays there. We can move kids in and out if we so desire. Am I personally opposed to a for-profit company? I’ve thought about that question, and honestly, I’m not. And at the end of the day, when you get down at the shelter level, you’re basically talking about just a bunch of social worker, child welfare experts, who just want to help care for the kids.

NEHA DESAI:

We know from the American Academy of Pediatrics that there's no amount of time that it's safe for children to be detained. We know definitively that detention harms children—that every single day that children are there, those impacts compound.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Recently, HHS’s internal investigator looked into the issue.

MARTHA MENDOZA:

They took a look at the shelter system and concluded in their own report that the mental health needs of these kids was not being met. Some kids were getting stressed out to the extreme; inflicting self-harm; becoming extremely withdrawn and depressed.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Beyond the mental health impacts, there have also been documented cases of physical and sexual abuse at some HHS shelters, and the AP reported that children and families are now suing the U.S. for hundreds of millions of dollars.

As for Martin, after almost three weeks in detention, he found out he would finally be going home.

MARTIN:

On a Saturday night I was going to sleep and they woke me up like around 10, 10:30, and they were like, "You're getting to leave."

MARTIN'S MOTHER:

[Speaking Spanish] I was anxious because his flight took longer than it should. And the truth is, when he got here, I didn’t even recognize him! I think I was so disoriented I just didn’t see him. But when I finally saw him, I was very happy. I felt as if my soul had returned to my body.

MARTIN:

When I saw them I just ran to her and got to hug her. I just stared at them; I didn't know what to do.

Before, I didn't really miss my mom because I get to see her every day. I didn't feel like there would be that empty space where you actually need that hug from your mom.

The first two weeks I didn't really get to sleep. I was still confused about what was happening. I wasn't really stable. I’m still scared that something bad could happen. I don't feel safe anymore.

XIOMARA:

[Speaking Spanish] We’re going to get Jarin! We did it!

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

After nearly four months, Xiomara was finally recognized as Jarin’s aunt by HHS.

JARIN:

[Speaking Spanish] When they told me they were going to release me to my family, I was surprised. When they told me to pack my bag, I was so happy. I’m leaving.

XIOMARA:

[Speaking Spanish] The day they gave me Jarin, I felt like the happiest woman in the world, because after so much time, they were finally handing him over.

We're picking up a little bug.

MALE VOICE ON PHONE:

[Speaking Spanish] Picking up a bug, eh?

XIOMARA:

[Speaking Spanish] Yes. Here he is!

We called and talked to the whole family.

FEMALE VOICE ON PHONE:

[Speaking Spanish] Oh, how great! Hi! I’m so happy.

JARIN:

[Speaking Spanish] Hi, how are you?

XIOMARA:

[Speaking Spanish] The first month, he talked about Homestead every day. He had trouble sleeping. He would wake up at 5 a.m. He would dream they were calling his name.

I asked him, "What’s going on with you? Do you feel bad? Do you need a therapist?"

"No, Auntie," he said. "Don’t worry. I’ll get over it."

JARIN:

[Speaking Spanish] I don’t remember much about how it was. I’ve forgotten everything about Homestead.

YENYS CASTILLO:

Your conscious mind might not remember, but your body remembers. Your brain remembers. And maybe that child at that moment says, "I’m OK." But later on he might be in a situation that is scary, and then he might freeze. And he doesn’t know why.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

We visited Martin two months after he came home.

He and his family asked to see the footage of the moment when he was first detained.

Were you surprised when they got the Border Patrol on the phone?

MARTIN:

Yeah. I just didn’t know what to say or how to react.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:

Is this OK? Do you want to turn it off?

MARTIN:

No, it’s OK. I just a constant thing I wish had never happened.

In August, the children at Homestead were reunited with their families or moved to other shelters.

HHS says more kids could be sent there if needed.

There are currently around 4,000 children in HHS custody, with more arriving every week.

33:25
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