Immigrant rights groups lashed out at the Biden administration this week after a new whistleblower complaint from two volunteers at a shelter for illegal immigrant children said they’d seen tragic mismanagement and suffering youths.
Laurie Elkins and Justin Mulaire work as lawyers for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and were detailed as volunteers to help out at Fort Bliss, an emergency shelter set up in Texas to handle thousands of unaccompanied juvenile migrants who have jumped the border since President Biden took office.
According to the whistleblower complaint filed on their behalf by the Government Accountability Project, they said they saw children living in “filth” amid an “odor of sewage.” Socks and underwear were in short supply, and children’s needs were ignored.
Their account reveals an administration unprepared to deal with the surge of children that spawned out of a Biden policy change that allowed the juveniles to remain in the U.S., spurring a record wave of arrivals.
The government was supposed to be relying on contractors, but there were too few of them at the start, and federal employees were begged to volunteer and help. The contractors who were on site weren’t suitable for the job, the whistleblowers said.
“They each witnessed episodes in which contract staff questioned a child’s request for medical attention and/or made the child wait for hours before escorting the child to the medical or mental health tents for care,” the Accountability Project complaint said.
Ms. Elkins reported one instance in which a girl who had been waiting weeks to be reunited with relatives was told that she would be going and was in line for the bus for departing kids, then was pulled out of line and told there was a “mistake” and she would have to stay.
The girl collapsed into tears. She was one of 48 children pulled out of line that same day and sent back into the shelter.
Ms. Elkins said a government employee acknowledged the damage.
“We are traumatizing these kids. This is terrible. This is horrible,” the employee said, according to Ms. Elkins. “People in Washington know. But this is an emergency situation and mistakes are going to happen.”
The complaints largely track with what a court-appointed monitor revealed late last month, but the whistleblowers are drawing attention as insiders who saw the operations up close for a month, from early May to early June,
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) demanded that the children at the Fort Bliss facility immediately be removed from “these abhorrent conditions” and turned over to their relatives already in the U.S. — usually residing illegally themselves.
“This must be a priority that is addressed now,” said Domingo Garcia, LULAC’s national president.
The juveniles are part of the UAC program, or “Unaccompanied Alien Children.” Under U.S. law, kids who jump the border without a parent present are deemed UACs. Those from Mexico or Canada can be immediately sent back, but those from farther afield are granted special treatment and are supposed to be dismissed from Department of Homeland Security custody to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours.
HHS runs shelters and foster care placements to house the children, and as of Tuesday, had 14,852 juveniles in custody.
Fort Bliss, just outside El Paso, is an emergency HHS shelter. The children are housed in tents, with witnesses saying they were packed tightly on bunk beds, with little opportunity for recreation. That has improved in recent weeks, though, according to the court-appointed monitor.
Reports of poor conditions have swirled around Fort Bliss from the start and dogged Vice President Kamala Harris’ border visit last month. She was in El Paso but did not make the short trip to Fort Bliss to get a look at the situation.
Her spokeswoman said she and Mr. Biden had ordered HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra to investigate.
Mr. Becerra was at Fort Bliss last week, but portrayed his visit as a normal check-in, not an investigation.