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Mayors call for reunification as migrant shelter safety questioned

By
Danielle Haynes
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stands at the gate of a border crossing entrance asking to see a Border Patrol supervisor after holding a press conference with other U.S. mayors at a tent city across from the Tornillo Port of Entry in Tornillo, Texas, on Thursday. Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA-EFE
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stands at the gate of a border crossing entrance asking to see a Border Patrol supervisor after holding a press conference with other U.S. mayors at a tent city across from the Tornillo Port of Entry in Tornillo, Texas, on Thursday. Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA-EFE

June 21 (UPI) -- Mayors from around the country gathered Thursday near the Tornillo port of entry in Texas to call for the reunification of separated immigrant families as questions arise over the safety of shelters for children.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the administration's practice of separating children from parents who illegally crossed the border. The increase in separations -- 2,300 since April -- came after the administration promised to prosecute 100 percent of all offenders.

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Though the separation policy has ended, the order did not provide for the return of children forcibly removed from their parents during the crackdown.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez was one of several leaders who gathered in Tornillo to call for the federal government to expedite the reunification of the children -- some infants -- with their parents.

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"This is not about politics, this is about tapping into our humanity to find solutions," he said on Twitter.

A statement from the Department of Health and Human Services, which is tasked with caring for the children, said it's unclear when reunifications will take place.

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"Our focus is on continuing to provide quality services and care to the minors ... and reunifying minors with a relative or appropriate sponsor as we have done since HHS inherited the program," the statement said.

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It's unclear where exactly each of the 2,300 forcibly separated children are at this point. Some of have been sent hundreds of miles from where their parents are being detained -- Michigan, New York, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida and Texas.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said some who came to his city have bed bugs, lice, chicken pox and other diseases. He travelled to Tornillo on Thursday, saying he would attempt to tour the "tent city" set up by the federal government to house the separated children there.

"This cruel policy has already caused untold damage that yesterday's executive order won't fix," he said on Twitter.

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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the care her department and HHS are giving the children in a briefing Monday at the White House.

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"Children in DHS and HHS custody are being well taken care of," she said. "The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement provides meals, medical care and educational services to these children. They are provided temporary shelter, and HHS works hard to find a parent, relative or foster home to care for these children. Parents can still communicate with their children through phone calls and video conferencing."

Tent cities along the U.S.-Mexico border at the Tornillo Port of Entry. Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA-EFE
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Leaders at all levels of government have attempted to enter facilities across the nation to observe the conditions in which unaccompanied and separated minors are being kept at $775 per child per night. Earlier this week, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said they were denied entry to a recently reopened shelter in Homestead, Fla.

Wasserman Schultz said the government reopened the facility earlier this year without public notice and she learned about it Monday.

"The company running this facility told us we would be welcomed to tour the facility," Nelson said. "HHS then denied us entry and said that they need 'two weeks notice' to allow us inside. That's ridiculous and it's clear this administration is hiding something."

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The Homestead shelter is one of several across the United States that has faced allegations of physical and sexual abuse. In 2017, a worker at the Florida shelter, Merice Perez Colon, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempting to engage in sexually inappropriate behavior with minors living at the facility.

In another instance at the Shiloh Treatment Center near Houston, children said they were forced to take psychiatric medications that made them feel dizzy and lethargic. One girl said a supervisor pushed her against a door and choked her after she attempted to open a window, according to court documents filed in April.

"The supervisor told me I was going to get a medication injection to calm me down," the girl said. "Two staff grabbed me, and the doctor gave me the injection despite my objection and left me there on the bed."

Forensic psychiatrist Mark J. Mills told Reveal -- part of the Center for Investigative Reporting -- that the type of drugs staff at the facility gave children should only be used in extreme cases.

"You don't need to administer these kinds of drugs unless someone is plucking out their eyeball or some such. The facility should not use these drugs to control behavior. That's not what antipsychotics should be used for. That's like the old Soviet Union used to do," he said.

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Carlos Holguin, an attorney for the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law who is representing the plaintiffs in the Shiloh case, said that of the 20 children he interviewed, all had been medicated.

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At the same facility, a 16-year-old girl died in 2001 after staff restrained her. After her death, the ORR said the facility was compliant with state requirements.

Children also died at two other facilities owned by the same man, Clay Dean Hill -- Behavior Training Research Inc. and Daystar Residential Inc. A 15-year-old died of asphyxia and a 16-year-old died after being restrained in a closet. Daystar closed after the latter's death.

And on Thursday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered an investigation into the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center amid allegations of abuse and mistreatment.

State inspectors cited the Shiloh facility for eight deficiencies since 2015, including overdue background checks for staff and lack of supervision over medication.

Reveal said that of the $3.4 billion in federal funds the Office of Refugee Resettlement paid private companies to house migrant children between 2014 and 2018, 44 percent -- or $1.5 billion -- went to facilities that had allegations of child mistreatment.

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Of the 13 organizations with abuse allegations or state citations, the ORR terminated contracts with two of them doing that time.

"Children are not poker chips, they are people. And we demand Washington fix the mess it has created," tweeted Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was also in Tornillo on Thursday.

Trump's executive order said going forward, families would be detained together after crossing the border legally. The administration, though, will come up against the Flores settlement, which prohibits immigrant children from being detained for more than 20 days.

On Thursday, the Department of Justice filed a motion in U.S. District Court in the Central District of California, seeking relief from the agreement so that children can be detained indefinitely pending their parents adjudication. The court document also sought to exempt Immigration and Customs Enforcement family residential facilities from the agreement's state licensure requirement.

Military spokesman Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis said the Defense Department will house up to 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children on military bases following a request from the Department of Health and Human Services The Washington Post reported.

The sites will be run by HHS employees or contractors working with them and will provide care to the children, "including supervision, meals, clothing, medical services, transportation or other daily needs."

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