How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Advocates charge Border Patrol with abusing 'unaccompanied minors'

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The L.A.-based Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project has joined a complaint accusing U.S. Customs and Border Protection of abusing migrant children who've crossed illegally into the U.S. without their parents.

Most of the 116 children cited in the complaint were trying to reunite with relatives in southern California, according to Esperanza officials. Ninety-seven of the minors have cases pending in the immigration court system in Los Angeles, which covers most of southern California, excluding San Diego.

CBP is charged with detaining the children for up to 72 hours until they are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. But the complaint said that about 70 percent of the minors were held beyond that time period in facilities described as unsanitary, freezing-cold and overcrowded.

Also from the complaint:

  • About 25 percent of children reported some form of physical abuse, including sexual assault, beatings, and the use of stress positions
  • More than 50 percent reported verbal abuse "including racially- and sexually-charged comments and death threats"
  • More than 50 percent reported the denial of medical care, including attention for pregnant and nursing minors
  • More than 80 percent report denial of adequate food and water. (One child reportedly drank from a toilet tank while others received "only frozen or spoiled food and subsequently became ill.")
  • 30 percent reported that their money was never returned to them

Children, some of whom had been sexually abused in their home country, complained about "having to use filthy restrooms in full view of other detainees and security cameras," according to the complaint.

"The CPB abuse compounds the trauma that many of these children have already suffered," said Erika Pinheiro, an immigration attorney with Esperanza.

In a statement issued Tuesday, CPB said that it has been working to handle the spike in the number of unaccompanied minors and that "mistreatment or misconduct is not tolerated."

CBP is ensuring nutritional and hygienic needs are met; that children are provided meals regularly and have access to drinks and snacks throughout the day; that facilities include toilets; that they receive constant agent supervision; that children who exhibit signs of illness or disease are given proper medical care.

RELATED: Emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant kids opening in Ventura

The complaint was filed by a coalition of immigrant rights groups including the ACLU Border Litigation Project and the National Immigrant Justice Center, and addressed to the Inspector General and the Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the Department of Homeland Security.

The group is calling for the federal government to end the alleged CPB abuses, initiate an investigation and release the findings.

Pinheiro said that many of the young men are fleeing gang violence while young women are escaping sexual abuse at the hands of gang members and family members.

Their hope is to be reunited with parents or relatives already in the US. Pinheiro said some Salvadoreans and Hondurans were able to come to the US under Temporary Protected Status but have not been allowed to petition for relatives to join them.

"The left-behind children, many of whom are now teenagers, are particularly vulnerable to gang violence," Pinheiro said.

The complaint comes just days after the Obama administration announced that it would be using an Army base at Fort Sill, Okla. as emergency housing to deal with the increased numbers of unaccompanied immigrant children. Two other bases have already been designated in recent weeks as housing for these minors: the naval base at Port Hueneme in Ventura County and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Tex.

This story has been updated.

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