U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released 12 of 16 babies detained at a rural detention center in rural Texas after three immigration advocacy groups filed a complaint with Congress and the Department of Homeland Security, asking them to “intervene immediately” and release “these families from custody.” The facility came under scrutiny in August of 2018 after a toddler died of a respiratory infection after being released from custody. Nine of the babies released this week are less than one year old.
ICE released the infants and their mothers just days after the American Immigration Council, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the Catholic Immigration Network, Inc. wrote a letter to lawmakers and public officials expressing concern about a sudden “alarming increase in the number of infants” at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, and the “lengthy delays in receiving medical attention and lack of appropriate follow-up treatment.” According to the letter, at least one infant has been detained for more than 20 days.
“ICE is required to meet basic standards of care for minor non-citizens in its custody,” the letter said. “It repeatedly has demonstrated an inability to do so.”
An ICE official blamed the increase of detained infants on more immigrants crossing the border. “As the number of family units crossing the border into the U.S. has increased, so too has the frequency of those with younger children, including infants,” the official wrote in an email to CBS News. Though an ICE official stated that immigrants being held in custody receive “comprehensive medical care,” including access to mental health professionals, dental care, and 24-hour emergency care, this is how Katy Murdza, the advocacy coordinator at the American Immigration Council’s Dilley Pro Bono Project, described the conditions at the detention facility to CBS:
Many infants lost weight after arriving at the detention center because the Dilley facility has only one type of formula available, and it needs to be special requested, which caused delays in accessing it, said Murdza. Mothers weren’t given bottled water to mix with the formula, forcing infants to drink the tap water, which she described as potentially unsafe.
“Our staff doesn’t even drink the water here,” Murdza said. “It smells like chlorine.”
Per an agreement known as the Flores Settlement, children are supposed to be released to a guardian or family sponsor “without unnecessary delay,” and those who remain in custody are entitled to essentials like medical care and clean drinking water. According to Murdza, that’s not happening at the Dilley detention facility where, in August, state officials launched an investigation into potential abuses when a toddler in detention died six weeks after leaving the facility due to an infection.
The Trump administration has forcibly separated thousands—the exact number is unknown, even to them—of families, and has attempted to override the Flores Settlement to detain families indefinitely in horrible conditions. In February, Axios revealed that sexual abuse of minors is rampant in detention. The horrors don’t end when and if a person is released: families struggle to navigate the complex, labyrinthian immigration system with little to no support, and attempt to process the trauma endured from separation and detention.
Michael Sheridan, an ICE contracting officer representative told reporters in August that “most people at Dilley pass the initial credible-fear screenings and are eventually released to live with relatives already in other parts of the United States.” Immigrants are typically held in custody until ICE officials can assess whether they are a flight risk or pose a threat to the community before they are released. ICE is supposed to release families within 20 days.
As Katie Shepherd, National Advocacy Counsel for the Immigration Justice Campaign at the American Immigration Council, told CBS News, “It’s very disturbing and ludicrous that ICE is saying we have to make an assessment as to whether a five-month-old is a danger or flight risk.”