Military tents used to house migrants are pictured at the US Customs and Border Protection facility is seen in Clint, Texas, on June 26, 2019. - The site held about 250 children in crowded cells, with limited sanitation and medical attention, as reported by a group of lawyers able to tour the facility under the Flores Settlement. (Getty/Paul Ratje)

Inside Trump's concentration camps: Attorney Hope Frye saw "cruel," "inhumane," "sadistic" treatment

Human rights lawyer says children sleep on "concrete floors," with "no soap, no water, insufficient nutrition"


Chauncey DeVega
July 9, 2019 11:00AM (UTC)

Donald Trump's administration is intentionally causing pain and suffering to nonwhite migrants and refugees along the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere. At least 11 have died, including seven children. There have been thousands of reports of children being abused by staff members at Border Patrol and related facilities between 2014 and 2018. This has likely only gotten worse under Trump.

The babies, children and adults being held in Trump's concentration camps do not have proper access to clean water, toothpaste, soap and other hygiene products, adequate food, safe places to sleep or sufficient medical care. There have been repeated reports of detainees being forced to drink from toilets and kept in conditions so dangerous that Border Patrol officers armed themselves in preparation for an imminent uprising. In Trump's concentration camps, children are covered in human waste and other filth because they have not been allowed to bathe.

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For example, the Border Patrol detention center in Clint, Texas, is so unsanitary that on Saturday the New York Times reported:

Outbreaks of scabies, shingles and chickenpox were spreading among the hundreds of children who were being held in cramped cells, agents said. The stench of the children’s dirty clothing was so strong it spread to the agents’ own clothing — people in town would scrunch their noses when they left work. The children cried constantly. One girl seemed likely enough to try to kill herself that the agents made her sleep on a cot in front of them, so they could watch her as they were processing new arrivals.

As he does about most things, Donald Trump has lied about this unconscionable situation. On Friday he told the press, "I've seen some of those places and they are run beautifully. ... They're clean. They're good, they do a great job."

Trump's puppets in the Republican Party and his de facto state-sponsored propaganda machine, Fox News, have described the misery being experienced by migrants and refugees as similar to a house party or summer camp.

Trump wrote last Wednesday on Twitter: "If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!"

These deplorable conditions are not an accident. They are more like the designed outcome of a master plan.

Despite their repeated and best efforts, the Trump regime and its propagandists cannot smother the truth. Somehow, as it almost always manages to do, the truth comes out, and finds an audience hungry for it.

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How does the culture of the Border Patrol and other federal agencies, including ICE, encourage the cruelty of these detention centers? Does this rise to the level of torture? Is the Trump regime violating both international and American law in its treatment of migrants and refugees? Is this government's cruelty to such migrants and refugees part of a larger authoritarian agenda?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with human rights attorney Hope Frye. She has been defending the human dignity and civil rights of migrants, refugees and other groups of vulnerable people for 40 years. Hope became involved  when she chaired the Board of Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law (CHRCL) and now leads teams of lawyers and doctors into ORR, ICE and CBP detention facilities to monitor compliance with the landmark 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement governing the treatment of unaccompanied migrant and refugee children. She is a volunteer serving as CHRCL Volunteer Coordinator.

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Frye has been monitoring the treatment of migrant and refugee children in several of the government's detention facilities, including those in McAllen, Texas; Homestead, Florida; and several facilities in the Rio Grande Valley.

Frye is also the attorney who discovered the premature newborn and her young mother at an overcrowded processing facility in McAllen, Texas, last month.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can hear our full conversation on my podcast, "The Chauncey DeVega Show." My conversation with Hope Frye can also be listened to through the player below.

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How does the culture of the Border Patrol and ICE normalize cruelty against nonwhite migrants and refugees? Has Donald Trump encouraged this bad behavior?

The United States Border Patrol was designed to be a gun-carrying law enforcement organization that dealt principally with males. They were also designed to deal primarily with Mexico. The Border Patrol sees themselves — and I think this is still true — as "guardians of the gate". The organization's functions have been greatly expanded over the years. They carry weapons in the detention centers. They are a police force. Culturally, people who join the United States Border Patrol are signing up to be law enforcement agents.

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So then you put people with this orientation at Border Patrol posts with lots of children. In essence, this is a jail for children, with Border Patrol agents as guards. Then you add that environment to the larger national discourse and mood, where the Trump administration is intentionally acting in a divisive and disruptive way. Trump's policies are designed to keep American society fractured and to increase division.

Anytime there is division it is easier to consolidate central power. The Trump administration is busy creating a type of "other" —migrants and refugees fit this role. For Trump and his allies, these nonwhite migrants and refugees are the rapists, they are the "caravans" of brown people who are coming to "invade" America. This language obfuscates what's actually happening to real people. Trump's imagery is not just about "invaders" because that stops when they are taken by the Border Patrol.

What is the next step in Trump's effort to create division, divisiveness and fear? You start releasing migrants and refugees with ankle GPS sensors in huge numbers. You drop them off at bus stations in Texas and Arizona that are close to the places where these people are apprehended and where they would be detained. You dump a whole lot of people with no resources. You create this mass of people. The rhetoric has now been made into reality — but it is an artificial one.

In your visits to these Border Patrol detention centers, what did you see? Was it different from what you expected?

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In 2017, Judge Dolly Gee issued a massive order condemning Customs and Border Protection for violations of the 1997 Flores agreement. These migrants and refugees — children too — have no soap, no water, insufficient nutrition. The lights are on all the time, [they are] put in freezing cold and have no access to family. Investigators, human rights attorneys and other watchdogs also found rampant disease in these facilities.

Every child we saw had the flu or were in some stage of recovery. Mothers and babies were sleeping on concrete floors with no blankets. The children are not being fed properly. Kids aren't getting enough calories. There is a public health crisis at these Border Patrol centers. Children are not being examined properly. Children are not being given medication and if they are ill are not being put in a situation where they can heal. Sick children are being packed into cages with children who are not sick. This is unacceptable. There will be an epidemic.

What are the United States government's legal obligations to provide care for migrants and refugees when they are in custody?

Because children are covered by the Flores agreement, they have to have safe and sanitary conditions. This includes access to soap and water, toilets, adequate space in the detention areas, adequate ventilation and proper climate control, and adequate nutrition. The Flores agreement requires that the special vulnerabilities of children be taken into account. They're supposed to have medical care, particularly in an emergency. Children are supposed to be properly supervised: Children are not to be left alone in cages taking care of other babies to whom they're unrelated.

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Ultimately, these children are supposed to be treated the same way as an American child detained in another country. These are very basic standards.

Children are also supposed to pass very quickly through Border Patrol facilities and be taken to licensed shelters. Instead, what is happening — as we have seen at places such as Homestead [Florida], for example — is that the children are being warehoused. These for-profit contractors are not putting their resources into releasing the children. They're warehousing kids at $750 a day. Properly managing the release function costs pennies on the dollar. These facilities are also not licensed. At the licensed facilities where children are supposed to be kept, there are state standards about nutrition, space, sleeping arrangements and other matters. Licensing also means that these facilities can be inspected at any time.

By putting children in these large influx centers, rules established by the state are circumvented. Standards about what is safe and necessary for dependent children are not enforced. For-profit actors who are accountable to shareholders have to justify how they're managing the money. And what happens when you detain kids and your motivation is profit? The corporations lose the money they make by keeping the children in these warehouses and other facilities.

Adults are also supposed to be held in safe conditions. These are not supposed to be jails. These are detention centers. Criminals of every kind, whether they're found in this migrant and refugee population or in the United States general population, are put in jail. Depending on what they have been charged with, people should also have bond hearings. Most migrants and other undocumented people are not going to abscond and they are not a danger to society.

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Several weeks ago an attorney for the Trump administration argued that these migrant and refugee children being held in Trump's detention centers do not need access to soap, beds, toothbrushes and other basic hygiene items. This attorney was arguing for cruel and inhumane treatment and then hiding behind the hollow defense that she was just following orders. As an attorney, are you allowed to turn down a case and say, "This is against my conscience"?

An attorney has to zealously represent their client. If an attorney can do this, then it does not matter if they believe in a given proposition or not — unless it is a criminal case. When we're in law school, we as attorneys in training are taught to argue both sides of a issue. We operate as individuals when it comes to our moral conscience. Under Flores, because it's litigation, I'm not allowed to talk about what we see, but when I had a baby who was going to die in Border Patrol custody and I couldn't get the baby and mom out, I went to the media. My duty to do everything to prevent harm from happening is greater than my duty to litigation.

What specifically happened with this young mother and her premature baby?

I decided that I wanted to see young children who had teen mothers, because both are considered unaccompanied. This case was a particularly horrible situation. In comes a young girl in a wheelchair who is in serious pain. I went over to where she was going to be interviewed and she had this bundle, a filthy sweatshirt, gray and almost black. This young girl had something wrapped in the blanket. When she pulled back the top of the blanket there was black hair and this teeny, tiny head. And then I saw the face — a premature baby. The baby's mother was in excruciating pain.

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They should never have been there. They'd been there seven days. She can't walk. She hasn't had a shower. Children can't have showers unless they are with the parents. I took a Kleenex and I cleaned black dirt off the neck of this premature baby. I worked within the system initially to try to get her released. I took it myself to the highest levels, and when I couldn't get her released and I felt that the baby was at risk of dying, I then went to the media. The government is responsible for this situation.

How can the United States government not find a safe place to put one mother, crippled up in pain, who's 17 years old, and one premature baby? Why did she have to endure this?

As it has been explained to me, one reason that the administration is moving migrants and refugees to military bases is that this will limit public civilian oversight. Is that correct?

Attorneys working under the Flores agreement do have access — the Trump administration, by the way, has proposed regulations to specifically eliminate the right of outside observers to gain access. Influx centers are not licensed, so state authorities can't go in there. Access for congressional  representatives has been blocked at these facilities. Access for human rights groups has been blocked too.

In addition to the deaths and physical abuse, including sexual assault, there have been reports that migrants and refugees being held in Border Patrol facilities do not have proper access to soap and water, are drinking out of toilets, are given substandard food, and have no proper places to sleep. Children and adults have also told reporters, human rights observers and even congressional representatives that Border Patrol agents wake them up at night to keep them from sleeping. Does this constitute cruel and unusual punishment under U.S. or international law? Is this torture?

Absolutely. It is sadistic and cruel behavior that rises, in my view, to the level of torture. I think the United States is in violation not only of our own laws but of international laws governing refugees and asylum seekers. The United States should be vigorously condemned internationally, including by our allies. The United States has held other countries to standards which this government is now violating.

I met a little girl in one of these facilities who was 10, and she had been separated from her mother. She was from Honduras. She is this beautiful little 10-year-old child. She was very tired. This child said to me, "When I was in that place and I was in that cage, I couldn't go to sleep because it was so cold and they had the lights on all the time. And sometimes I would just get so sleepy and I would lay down on the concrete and I'd go to sleep and as soon as I go to sleep, one of the police would come and kick me and I would sit up and say, 'Yes, what do you want?' And they would walk away and they kept doing that every time I fell asleep." And she said to me, "Why did he do that?"

What am I supposed to say to this child? That they are sadistic and they are torturing you? I just said, "Baby, I don't know. I'm sorry that happened to you. I'm so sorry. That's not going to happen to you anymore." Because she's out of Border Patrol. She's not going to get kicked like that somewhere else. That's what happened when this child was being held by the Border Patrol.

Why did they do that? Why did the guards have her sleeping on the floor in a freezing cold cage? We have to start there. Keeping the lights on all the time, having noise all the time, guards waking you up and hitting things against the cage. This is torture. This is the type of behavior that was done when the United States sent "terrorists" to be tortured at so-called black sites in other countries.

What have your direct experiences with Border Patrol officers been like?

A Border Patrol officer said to me, "Well, these teenage girls shouldn't be having babies anyway. They're promiscuous." Such a statement shows not only judgmental behavior about something this Border Patrol officer does not know about but a complete lack of understanding of what happens to these children in lawless societies such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. I heard sentiments such as, "These people should never have come," and "They should be treated as people who shouldn't be here," and "They should be harshly treated because it will deter others." The latter, of course, has been shown not to be true.

Every Border Patrol officer is not horrible. But there is a culture with the Border Patrol which encourages good people to be silent. I don't think everybody in Border Patrol is bad by any means. I think some people join Border Patrol to be of service to their country. I think that some number of people get co-opted by the culture. They're a law enforcement agency and they behave like one. Moreover, these Border Patrol officers know that they are dealing with a vulnerable population which has no voice.

Migrants and refugees don't vote. So they are not a constituency for any congressperson to represent or protect.

The other day Donald Trump said, "Oh well, you should see where they come from. They come from poverty." The implication is that we are treating them well, because where they come from they've got it worse. This is such bizarre thinking. We're the United States of America. We take care of children. They're just children, and many of them are just babies. They're just beautiful little children.

I saw a baby in one of the Border Patrol facilities who had been there with his teen mom for 20 days. He looked like he was made of wax. He'd had the flu, his mom had the flu, for 20 days. There are children layered on the floor and other people sitting there. There is no furniture in those rooms. There's a toilet in the corner. One girl told me that the toilet was overflowing. The only place for them to be at night was to sit crunched up against that filthy toilet. She had her young niece with her. This girl then took this piece of aluminum foil that's supposed to be a blanket and wrapped it around her niece's head so the niece wouldn't vomit from the stench. These are children being treated in such a horrible way by the United States government.

What would you tell the American people to do, if they are disgusted by what is taking place at these facilities?

If this was your child, what would you do? The American people must not turn away. We need to shine a light. Don't let it go just because the news cycle moves on. It is too awful to think about. Don't do it. Keep the light on this horrible situation. Go to your legislators and demand that they do something to stop this.

Given that you have been inside these facilities, would you consider them to be "concentration camps"? How is this making the United States look before the world?

When I was in McAllen, a prominent French TV news program asked if they could film me. They are shocked in France to hear about what is happening in America with these children and babies and how refugees and migrants are being treated. The Trump administration has already greatly imperiled the reputation of the United States around the world. How the Trump administration is acting along the U.S.-Mexico border and treating migrants and refugees is adding fuel to the fire. There are right-wing, anti-immigrant governments in Europe. What Trump is doing is encouraging them. These policies have imperiled America's ethics.

To me these are brutal detention facilities where people are being cruelly, inhumanely and sadistically treated. I am not an expert on what constitutes a "concentration camp." I only know what I saw. In the Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters children are marched in groups of six or 12. They have no privacy. They are being watched all the time in what is a very militaristic setting. I think the country's next national conversation needs to be about what happens when these children go from  one hell to another. This second hell are these more supposedly benign places that are being run for profit, with money being paid for by United States taxpayers. And money is being made off the backs of the babies and other children being put in these detention centers.

The Border Patrol says that this disaster is not their fault. "It's the fault of Office of Refugee Resettlement, which does not have enough shelter beds." The United States is a capitalist society. The profit motive rules, even in terms of how we treat these kids.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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