Immigrant rights advocates were horrified Tuesday by a new report which confirmed that the Trump administration is sending some immigrant children to clandestine facilities that are not known to their families and lawyers and are not equipped to provide care to vulnerable minors.
An investigation by Reveal on Monday showed that at least 16 young immigrants—as young as nine years old and in need of mental or behavioral health treatment—have been sent by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to "off-the-books" facilities outside the network of federally-funded detention centers. The administration is housing immigrant children with an even greater degree of secrecy than was previously known, in violation of U.S. law.
"ORR needs to provide answers immediately about where they are holding asylum-seeking children, and what, if any, child welfare regulations those facilities are meeting." —Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)
At least one facility—Rolling Hills Hospital in Ada, Oklahoma—has a history of patient abuse.
The Flores settlement of 1997 requires that minors are held in U.S. custody for no more than 20 days and demands that the federal government share with a child's attorney the minor's whereabouts and release him or her to a sponsor as soon as possible—two stipulations that the ORR has blatantly flouted with its use of secret facilities.
"Detained unaccompanied children with mental health issues are some of the most vulnerable children, and when the government does not provide access to their whereabouts, it calls into question the basic underpinnings of our democratic institutions," Holly Cooper, an attorney representing unaccompanied minors in a class action lawsuit, told Reveal.
Reveal's report was met with shocked reactions from rights groups and other critics on social media.
Children (MINORS) are being held in secret locations/off books black sites! Unknown how they are treated-have mental health & behavioral challenges! NO access to legal representation-the number of Children is unknown @reveal https://t.co/1m1N4aZP4J
— David Quintana (@DavidOQuintana) March 19, 2019
Disturbing news from @reveal. #Tornillo and #Homestead were/are public monuments to injustice and now we have more cause for concern about what happens in secret.#MercyForImmigrantshttps://t.co/oYrBf2DzF5
— Sisters of Mercy (@SistersofMercy) March 19, 2019
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Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who has vocally opposed the administration's secretive immigration policy and introduced a bill that would guarantee lawmakers open access to detention centers for immigrant children, called Reveal's report "incredibly disturbing."
This is incredibly disturbing. Imagine being a child in a strange country, hundreds or thousands of miles from where you grew up, surrounded by people who may not speak your language. You would be incredibly vulnerable—which is exactly why we have strict protections for children. https://t.co/uzb6HA5eBa
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) March 19, 2019
In addition to Rolling Hills Hospital, children have been sent to secret centers in Arkansas, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Néstor Dubón, whose 16-year-old cousin has been in U.S. custody for two years, told Reveal that ORR did not disclose where it was sending his cousin when he was transferred from a federal detention center in Virginia. The government told Dubón that his cousin would be held in Arkansas, but didn't say he was being sent to a privately-run facility, Millcreek Behavioral Center.
Dubón said he has complied with government rules in order to take custody of his cousin, to no avail.
"I've given my fingerprints three times—three times!" Dubón told Reveal. "I've obtained and shared birth certificates and powers of attorney from Honduras and for what? He's still there."
In addition to grave concerns over the record of Rolling Hills Hospital—where a recent investigation showed patients have suffered broken bones and alleged sexual harassment and that the hospital has not reported deaths to the state—other facilities have not been contracted by the government to provide mental healthcare.
"ORR needs to provide answers immediately about where they are holding asylum-seeking children, and what, if any, child welfare regulations those facilities are meeting," Merkley said.