An Oregon Law Professor Visited Children at the Border and Told the World of the Horrors

An interview with Willamette University professor Warren Binford on the conditions at one child detention center at the border.

A year ago, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) visited the outside of an immigrant child detention center in Texas, setting off a firestorm over the Trump administration's policy of separating children from parents at the border.

Last month, an Oregon law professor took her turn.

As part of a team of 10, Willamette University professor Warren Binford visited children being held at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Clint, Texas, igniting a new round of recriminations about the way the Trump administration is treating immigrant children.

A few years ago, Binford joined the team of lawyers monitoring the living conditions of children in immigration detention as part of a legal settlement.
The conditions she witnessed at Clint were the worst she'd ever seen. The center housed children who hadn't bathed in weeks, wearing the same clothing they crossed the border in, shirts caked with mucus. A child as young as 8 had been left to tend for a toddler separated from relatives.

Under federal law, children aren't even supposed to be held longer than 72 hours by Customs and Border Protection, but some children in Clint had been there for "three weeks or longer."

WW talked with Binford about what she saw and what's unfolded since she began speaking to the media about the conditions she found.

WW: What stands out from this visit that will stick with you?

Warren Binford: The hundreds, literally hundreds of children, who were being kept in this facility in such inhumane conditions—it's something that is difficult for me to fathom.

What was inhumane?

The fact that these children were separated from their families, the fact that these children were being fed inadequately, the fact that many of them were filthy, dirty. The fact that they were not being given access to regular showers. They weren't being allowed to brush their teeth regularly.

The fact that they were sick. That they were being locked up in cells that are worse than prison or jail cells. That they had open toilets in the cells that they had to eat next to.

The fact that these cells had 20, 45, 50, 75, 100, 300 children, and they had to toilet in front of one another.

The fact that they had no adults caring for them, that the children were left to care for each other.

What's the impact of the kids not being adequately cared for by adults?

A Lord of the Flies dynamic was being created among the children.

There was a shortage of beds, and the children, in the different cells, created different systems to decide how the beds were going to be allocated, resulting in infants, toddlers, preschoolers, child mothers, all sleeping on the cold, concrete floors and cement blocks.

Were there troubling interactions with the guards?

These children were being denied medical care. There was lice infestation, there was an influenza outbreak.

When the lice infestation happened, the six children who were found to have lice on them were given lice shampoos, but none of the other children were. Instead, the other children were given two lice combs and told to pass the combs around.
This is how you spread a lice infestation. When one of those lice combs was lost, the guard yelled at the children and made them cry, and took away their bedding, and said they would have to sleep on the cold cement that night as punishment for losing the comb.

I was so outraged by this that even though we were supposed to end our interviews on Wednesday, we arranged to go back a fourth day. And I went back on Thursday, specifically to find out if the guard was just threatening the children and trying to scare them, or if he really was a monster enough to make these children, these 40-something children, sleep on the concrete floor.
It included infants and toddlers and preschoolers among those children, and when I came back the next day, multiple children confirmed that the guards never gave them the bedding back. And the entire cell of children had to sleep on the concrete that night.

What was it like to interview the children?

Many of the children were inconsolable, many of the children were sleep deprived.

One little girl kept waking up, crying inconsolably and then falling asleep on the conference room table again. She was 7 years old. She had been separated from her family at the border; she had a parent, maybe both, in the United States.

Would it be hard to find these children's relatives?

We called parents during the interviews at this facility in Texas, and every single time that we called one of the family members in the United States, they either answered the telephone immediately or called us back within a matter of minutes.

These kids have the numbers memorized. They have the numbers written on bracelets. They have the telephone numbers tucked into their pockets.

It's not that hard to do background checks.

Do you believe any Trump administration policies act as a deterrent to immigrants?

No. Nope.

The fact that they're continuing to deploy these policies without success, in the face of failure, it's mind-blowing to me. It'd be one thing if they were like, "Look, we were mean to these kids and their young parents, but it's reduced immigration at the border." That would be one thing, but it's not at all what's happening.

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