CLINT, Texas—Last week, lawyers from Human Rights Watch toured the Clint Border Patrol station outside of El Paso, Texas. What they reported shocked the nation: migrant children without diapers, toddlers in the care of teenage detainees, and a lack of basic sanitation such as clean clothing and access to showers.
And after a sanitized tour of the facility for reporters on Wednesday, the lawyers aren’t backing away from what they said.
Border Patrol officials led about a dozen journalists through the facility holding more than 100 children a half-hour outside of El Paso. As many officers flanked the reporters at all times. The press was not allowed to speak with the children. A minder sternly warned if anyone did the tour would be instantly canceled.
Clint station is the main processing center for what the government calls “Unaccompanied Alien Children” apprehended in this region of the border. Children are supposed to be processed within 72 hours by Border Patrol and transferred out to the Department of Health and Human Services so they may stay in shelters or with foster parents.
But children are regularly kept as long as six to ten days, said Border Patrol Agent in Charge Matthew Harris, and some minors are held much longer. It’s due, in part, to a surge of children—accompanied and unaccompanied—at the border, mostly from Central America.
The building itself is unremarkable, like a warehouse built with cinder blocks. The walls and floors smell sterile and appear clean. In the open area where vehicles use to park, up to 200 children are kept at a time. Some sleep on the floor on mats, others on bunk beds stacked three high.
Children are also held in nine separate holding rooms inside the main building, each with a posted capacity of nine to 24 individuals. Aaron Hall, a senior Border Patrol officer, admits that rooms are often filled far beyond capacity. "In an ideal world they wouldn't be," he added.
Children have access to several portable toilets but only a few are allowed to the restroom area at a time. Officials said they can shower every two or three days.
As reporters moved through the building, children pressed against the glass separating the rooms from us and waved. Others hid their faces or ignored the group altogether. One small boy blew on the glass, drawing shapes in the condensation. Another gave a thumbs down, before giggling with friends. In the large holding area, boys with no shoes played soccer.
It was all to show that the children were being treated relatively well, contrary to what Human Rights Watch said last week. Hall called their allegations "hurtful," saying officers are doing the "best we can with what we have.”
Mike Bochenek of Human Rights Watch, who visited the facility last week, told The Daily Beast that their team stands by their assessments of the treatment of the children at Clint. While the lawyers were not allowed to tour the facility, Bochenek said they did speak to 60 children and conduct in-depth interviews with 30 minors ranging from 17 to 2 years old.
Lawyers observed how the children looked, how they smelled, and what they were dressed like. While Border Patrol officials during Wednesday’s tour claimed the children have regular access to showers and clean clothes, Bochenek said, "when it comes to the level of hygiene, we could smell them."
"We have consistent accounts from a large number of kids who are telling us one thing, and Border Patrol agents who are facing public outcry, on the other hand..." Bochenek said. "Well, let the readers draw their own conclusions, particularly informed by the fact that governments own inspection office has reached similar findings in respect to other facilities."
One officer told reporters "we have to defend ourselves" from the reports of unsanitary conditions and unwashed children. "It's about transparency," he said before laughing off a question he wasn't sure he should answer by saying he wouldn't get ahead of the briefing because, as he said, "I like my job!"