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Migrant Child Detention

Young children lie inside a pod at the Department of Homeland Security holding facility run by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) on March 30, 2021 in Donna, Texas. (Photo: Dario Lopez-Mills/Pool/Getty Images)

Groups Demand Biden Administration End Child Detention at 'Contaminated and Unsafe' Fort Bliss

"We urge HHS and the Army to use their authorities to immediately close the migrant detention center at Fort Bliss and prioritize the use of community-based solutions."

Brett Wilkins

Environmental and immigrant rights advocates on Thursday sent a letter to the Biden administration urging an immediate end to the detention of children at Fort Bliss, a "contaminated and unsafe" Army base in the Texas desert where authorities have held thousands of unaccompanied minors in conditions one government whistleblower said are harming their "health and well-being."

"A detention center located on or directly adjacent to hazardous, toxic waste sites, potentially impacting the facility's water and air quality, likely does not meet the legal and agency-required standards of care for minors and is unsafe and unsuitable for detaining children."
—Groups' letter

Earthjustice, in coordination with clients Hispanic Federation, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, GreenLatinos, and Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, sent the letter (pdf) to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration for Children and Families at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Pentagon, and the Department of the Army demanding "the immediate closure of the migrant child detention center located on the Fort Bliss Army Base in El Paso, Texas."

"We are alarmed by the growing number of reports of dangerous and unsafe conditions for children at Fort Bliss and other emergency intake shelters and join the call for HHS and the Biden administration to close the shelter and ensure that children are never again held in these types of conditions," the letter states.

"We also request that the required environmental testing, investigation, and assessment of health risks at Fort Bliss be completed to determine the safety of this site as a shelter for any asylum-seekers including migrant children," it continues. "If such testing and assessment has been recently completed, the Biden administration must immediately release all relevant information to the public as required by law."

The detention of unaccompanied migrant children at Fort Bliss began during the Trump administration. In March, the Biden administration built a temporary detention facility for migrant children at the base, which has held as many as 4,300 minors in large tents.

"Several locations at Fort Bliss are not suitable for residential purposes due to the United States Army's previous failure to take the necessary steps to ensure that the sites are free of toxic hazards," the letter states.

"Despite these hazards and our best efforts to obtain information from the relevant agencies, we are not aware of where exactly the current detention center at Fort Bliss is located or any recent environmental testing at the site, nor are we aware of any assessment regarding the health risks and suitability of such a site for residential purposes for children," it says.

Earthjustice has identified "at least 80 contaminated sites" at the base, including 18 landfills and rubble pits, three fire training areas, 27 underground storage tanks and oil pits, six unexploded ordnance (UXO) and detonation areas, 10 sites where illegal dumping by unauthorized parties occurred, and half a dozen evaporation and oxidation ponds.

"Exposure to these hazardous chemicals in isolation can lead to deleterious health effects like cancer, neurological damage, and injury to major human organs."
—letter

Contaminants found at these sites include chlorinated volatile organic compounds; aromatic volatile organic compounds including benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes; radioactive metals; asbestos; explosive compounds including UXO; per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); semi-volatile organic compounds; and pesticides and herbicides.

"Exposure to these hazardous chemicals in isolation can lead to deleterious health effects like cancer, neurological damage, and injury to major human organs," the letter says. "Children face an even greater risk of harm from these chemicals because they are undergoing critical periods of rapid growth and development that make them more sensitive to even low levels of chemical exposures and more likely to suffer irreversible harm than adults."

"Given the sheer number of contaminated sites at Fort Bliss, it is likely that detainees would experience exposure to multiple hazardous chemicals simultaneously, compounding the risk of cumulative adverse health effects," it states. "Because several of the contaminated and unsafe areas at Fort Bliss have not yet been remediated, they are unfit for human residents, especially children."

The letter continues:

Testing at this site conducted prior to the Army's attempted cleanup efforts in the late-1990s, revealed levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the soil at more than 460 times the level for cancer risk as determined by EPA. 

Despite these alarming levels, the Army did not adequately ensure that its eventual cleanup efforts at the site met the federal standards, and the cleanup validation sampling was incomplete, particularly for carcinogenic volatile organic compounds. Post-cleanup soil sampling by the Army at the Rubble Dump Site in 2000 and 2001 indicates that the soil still contains arsenic, a carcinogenic heavy metal that has been linked to lower IQ scores in children, at levels at least 19 times the level for cancer risk for residential soils.

"Based on this information, the previously proposed site at Fort Bliss would clearly pose a substantial and imminent threat to the life or physical safety of those detained in and near the contaminated and impacted areas," the letter states. "Until thorough testing, analysis, and any required cleanup of the current site at Fort Bliss is completed, children cannot be detained at Fort Bliss."

The letter cites the Flores Settlement Agreement, which requires that minors in U.S. immigration custody be housed in facilities that meet certain standards of care.

"A detention center located on or directly adjacent to hazardous, toxic waste sites, potentially impacting the facility's water and air quality, likely does not meet the legal and agency-required standards of care for minors and is unsafe and unsuitable for detaining children," it asserts.

"Community-based solutions that do not involve placing children on military sites or in detention-like settings should be immediately developed and implemented, but the health and safety of children in the custody of the federal government should never be in question," the letter adds. "Until suitable housing for children under federal custody is found, the federal government retains the legal responsibility to keep them physically and emotionally safe."

In addition to environmental hazards, the letter notes that "immigrants and asylum-seekers frequently endure horrific conditions, with sexual assault, violent abuse, and medical negligence commonplace" in immigration lockups.

Last week, Common Dreams reported government lawyers on volunteer assignment at Fort Bliss filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that children detained at the base suffered substandard living conditions and mistreatment by contracted staff including employees of the emergency cleanup company ServPro, as well as neglect and indifference from Biden administration officials.

"Migrant children deserve to be cared for with dignity and compassion. Yet, we are seeing a continuation of unconscionable conduct in their treatment."
—Mily Treviño-Sauceda,
Alianza Nacional de Campesinas

"Stories of neglect, filth, and fear have been reported through firsthand as well as investigative accounts, corroborated by government oversight bodies," the letter says. "The Covid-19 pandemic has only further highlighted the dangers of detention, with illness sweeping through facilities and hundreds of cases reported at Fort Bliss."

"The Biden administration pledged to create a just and humane immigration system, yet in addition to the aforementioned concerns, confining migrants and legal asylum-seekers in facilities on or near potentially toxic waste sites without regard to potential short- and long-term health impacts can now be added to the list," the letter concludes. "We urge HHS and the Army to use their authorities to immediately close the migrant detention center at Fort Bliss and prioritize the use of community-based solutions."

"Failing that," it adds, "at a minimum, HHS and the Army must immediately engage in federally required environmental review, which is required at all detention center sites, and testing to gather data and to assess whether the facility at Fort Bliss is in fact safe for children."

Earthjustice senior associate attorney Mychal Ozaeta said in a statement that "richer countries like the United States must treat migrant children fleeing drought and food shortages, violence, and poverty, with care and respect. Particularly since we know the United States, with its actions and inactions, plays a strong role in the state of the Americas."

"We call on the Biden administration to right the wrongs of past administrations and ensure that children are properly cared for," added Ozaeta. "We also call for required environmental testing, investigation, and assessment of health risks to be completed to determine the safety of the Fort Bliss site."

Mily Treviño-Sauceda, co-founder and executive director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, said that "migrant children deserve to be cared for with dignity and compassion. Yet, we are seeing a continuation of unconscionable conduct in their treatment."

Teviño-Sauceda added: "We call on the Biden-Harris administration to fulfill their legal obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of migrant children in their care and to end migrant detention centers, including those in polluted military bases."


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