At an emergency shelter in the Texas desert, migrant teenagers are housed in long, wide trailers, with little space for recreation and not much to do during the hot summer days, according to lawyers and other advocates for the children who have visited them there.
Some of the children say they can wait more than a month before meeting with someone who can help connect them with a family member or other sponsor inside the United States. Some report episodes of food poisoning and say they have to wash their clothes in a bathroom sink.
In one case, two siblings at the shelter, a former camp for oil workers in Pecos, Texas, were given different case managers by the government. One sibling was reunited with their mother. The other was left behind in the shelter and remains there, according to a lawyer who has visited the shelter.
The living conditions for migrant children who arrive unaccompanied in the United States and are taken into custody appear to have improved since the early spring, when images of them crammed into Customs and Border Protection facilities drew criticism from around the world.
But accounts from people who are able to visit the emergency shelters — where the children are sent while awaiting the chance to be released to family members, friends or better-equipped state-run facilities — suggest that the Biden administration and the private contractors hired to run the facilities are still struggling to provide consistently good care for the children.
The Pecos shelter, which houses about 800 teenagers, is one of four remaining of the more than a dozen the Biden administration set up this spring to address the extraordinary number of migrant children arriving alone at the border with Mexico.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the shelters, just extended the Pecos contract to keep the facility open at least through November, and is considering plans to start housing younger children there as well, according to federal contract data.
The department’s internal watchdog opened an investigation this week into reports of substandard conditions and care at another of the remaining emergency facilities, the large shelter at the Fort Bliss military base in El Paso. More than half of the thousands of migrant children currently in emergency shelters are held at Pecos and Fort Bliss, according to internal data obtained by The New York Times.
The department did not respond to questions about the Pecos shelter. Xavier Becerra, the health and human services secretary, visited the Fort Bliss shelter at the end of June and said conditions had improved.
The government largely bars outside scrutiny of the emergency shelters, citing the pandemic and the privacy of the children, many of whom fled violence and poverty in their own countries to come to the United States. But some lawyers and others who work to help the children get access to the facilities, and their descriptions of the conditions help to flesh out what life is like there.
Jonathan Ryan, a lawyer with Raices, a nonprofit organization in Texas that provides free legal services to migrants, said in a statement to The Times that the children he met with felt “confined, distressed and like they are being punished.”
Another lawyer said the government had focused on moving the children out of the border facilities and into emergency shelters set up swiftly to house them. But it had not acted with the same sense of urgency about getting the children out of the emergency shelters.
The shelters were built to be temporary spaces where young migrants could be cared for after what was often a traumatic journey and their initial apprehension by Customs and Border Protection. But the average stay in the shelters has been over a month.
“It’s all about preventing” a backup of children in border station facilities, where they are supposed to be held only up to 72 hours, said Leecia Welch, a lawyer and the senior director of the legal advocacy and child welfare practice at the National Center for Youth Law. “No one seems to care much about the unsafe conditions we are sending the children to live in for months.”
Under a 1997 settlement decree, known as the Flores case, Ms. Welch and her colleagues inspect facilities holding children to monitor the government’s compliance with the agreement, which guarantees protections for migrant children held in government custody. Her organization visited the Pecos shelter in June and July.
The Health and Human Services Department has been responsive to early concerns raised about the shelters by advocates and lawmakers. It closed two shelters not long after they opened in April because of alarming conditions. And after concerns were raised about the space at Fort Bliss, the department started to limit the number of children sent there.
The Biden administration has also managed to place more children in state-licensed shelters where the standards of care are typically far better than what the emergency shelters offer.
On Aug. 4, there were a little more than 4,300 children in emergency shelters and about 10,100 in shelters with higher standards for care, according to government figures. On May 4, there were more than 13,000 children in emergency shelters and about 9,000 in the shelters with better care.
In June, the Biden administration started offering Covid-19 vaccinations to consenting children ages 12 and older, a spokeswoman said. And it more than doubled the number of case managers — a child’s ticket to being reunited with a family member or placed with another sponsor inside the United States — earlier this spring.
But even an official from the health and human services office that oversees the care acknowledged to a federal judge in June that there were not enough case managers to accelerate the safe release of the children. Children should meet with a case manager once a week, the department said.
Alberto, a 17-year-old from Guatemala, said he spent a month at the Pecos shelter before he met with a case manager. (Alberto is his middle name, which The Times agreed to use to protect his anonymity.)
In a recent interview, arranged by Raices, which is providing him legal services, Alberto described being locked in his two-person room for most of the 40 days he was at Pecos. He said he could not leave on his own. Staff members let him out for meals, modest recreation, English classes and a five-minute phone call every eight days with his aunt, whom he planned to live with when he got to the United States.
He said he felt as if he was in a “cage,” a word that has been used to describe the conditions of the Border Patrol holding stations in the past when they were overflowing with migrant children.
When Alberto got to the United States on May 30, he spent one day at a border facility, a time period well under the 72-hour maximum allowed by law. He said the agents there were kinder to him than the staff members at Pecos — one Border Patrol agent gave him apples, he said.
At Pecos, he said, he tracked the days by watching television in his room. He would see roommates rotate in and out, as they were united with family members or other sponsors. Not everyone at the shelter had to be locked in their rooms, he said, adding, “They didn’t treat everybody the same.”
Some days, he said, he felt sad and cried and regretted leaving Guatemala, where he said he feared for his life because he was resisting recruitment from criminal gangs.
“It didn’t seem like there was going to be an exit, and it made me feel very desperate,” he said.
This was the case for others at the Pecos shelter as well, Mr. Ryan said in his statement. Most, he said, were distressed about their cases and the lack of communication with officials about when they would be able to leave.
Mr. Ryan said he had been working with migrant children, mostly those who are detained in Texas, for more than a decade, visiting most Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers and shelters run by the Health and Human Service Department in the state.
The conditions at the Pecos shelter, he said, are “among the harshest and most restrictive of any” shelter he has visited.
The previous two administrations also faced these challenges in 2014 and again in 2019, when similar criticisms were levied. But when the number of children arriving alone on the southern border doubled between February and March this year, Mr. Biden’s team was caught unprepared without enough places to properly house them, in part because of Trump-era cutbacks as well as pandemic-driven public health restrictions.
Administration officials have pledged to provide the best care possible to the children and said it was the goal to get the children out of federal custody and safely placed with a sponsor as quickly as possible.
“And now we’re just kind of waiting for them” to make good on that promise, said Wendy Young, the president of the children’s advocacy organization Kids in Need of Defense.