Her attorney tried breathing exercises, stress putty, a toy. But a 7-year-old Salvadoran girl was inconsolable Wednesday even after the government moved her out of a Border Patrol station where infants, children and teens were being locked up with inadequate food, water and sanitation.
Hours after an immigration attorney met the girl in a day program for foster children, she said that although the girl’s in a safer place, she still couldn’t stop crying, even when the lawyer put her on Facetime with her parents.
“She just has these huge eyes and they’re just filled with tears, she couldn’t really talk, just nodded her head,” attorney Taylor Levy said soon after their 45-minute visit. “When we started the call I asked them to please try to be strong for her, that they’ll see her soon, but they kept passing the phone back and forth because they were trying not to cry.”
Attorneys had said the girl seemed to be at high risk for emotional trauma last week, when she was found hysterical, despondent and unkempt in a Clint, Texas, Border Patrol station. She had her hair brushed and was in clean clothes Wednesday. She had arrived at an El Paso foster home last night, and attorneys are working to reunite her with her parents who live in the U.S.
Earlier Wednesday, after attorneys sent a legal notice to the Justice Department demanding the girl’s release, her father told The Associated Press he was relieved to hear that she was out of the station in Clint.
Attorneys told him she had been placed in a children’s shelter in El Paso, but he still felt frantic over his child’s obvious distress.
“All she can do is cry and cry so much it sounds like she’s drowning,” said the girl’s father, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear that divulging his name would impact his chances at reuniting with his daughter.
The little girl caught the attention of attorneys interviewing children in the Clint station last week, where they said she burst into tears when they asked her a question.
They called her father after finding his phone number written on a bracelet she wore labeled “U.S. parent.” But she could barely talk to him on the phone.
He said when they spoke Saturday she was coughing and told him that guards had made her sleep on the floor as punishment for misplacing a lice comb a nurse had given children in her cell.
“I haven’t slept because every day that goes by that I can’t talk to her, I think, ‘What if I am sleeping well and she’s doing so badly alone in there?’ This is terrifying,” the man said.
Citing violations of the Flores settlement, a legal agreement that requires safe and sanitary detention for migrant children and families, the family’s attorney, Amy Maldonado, said in a legal notice that they had planned to file a complaint in federal district court, requesting an emergency Temporary Restraining Order and preliminary injunction if the girl was not released to her parents.
“She was forced to sleep on the tile floor as punishment for using a comb,” Maldonado said. “I want to find the name of the officer who did that to her.”
The legal documents give a dizzying account of the girl’s past few days.
On Sunday, she reportedly was moved to an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter in Combes, Texas, a 12-hour drive, but her placement was canceled. She was then taken back across Texas to the Border Patrol station in Clint, to wait to be moved to a shelter in San Antonio.
The decision was then made to move her to another shelter in El Paso, and then again to San Antonio, the notice said. During the frantic four-day period the girl had no communication with her parents, it said.
A Customs and Border Protection official who briefed media Tuesday on condition of anonymity reiterated that with 2,000 children in custody, the agency is “in a crisis mode.” By law, Customs is required to turn children over to the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which runs shelters and camps where they wait to be reunited with family or sponsors.
He said allegations of civil rights abuse, mistreatment and detention are under investigation. Customs planned a media tour at Clint Wednesday.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement did not provide immediate comment, but Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said the agency’s acting director, Jonathan Hayes, told her Wednesday their capacity is strained, so they can’t always accept children Customs is trying to hand over. He said the agency runs 165 shelters in 23 states and plans to open two more in Texas and Oklahoma.
“We need these agencies working together, and we have to find a way to break down any barriers that are preventing them from doing that,” said DeGette. “Because, right now, what we have is a system that’s breaking down, and when that happens it is ultimately the kids who are hurt the most.”
After The Associated Press broke news of the situation inside the Clint station, lawmakers from both parties demanded change. Soon the girl and more than 200 other children up to age 17 were bused to another U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility on the north side of El Paso, a more temporary, tent-like facility with showers and sleeping mats.
By Monday morning, Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said she had been told by Border Patrol that fewer than 30 children remained at Clint and federal officials said they were preparing to send nearly 250 others to ORR shelters, a first step toward reunification.
But in the passing days, Customs decided to resume using Clint as a child-holding facility, both for those who came alone and those separated from their parents and caregivers.
Staffers from several congressional offices said the girl had been slated to join those heading to shelters, and later on to her parents, who have lived in the U.S. for several years working in construction and the cleaning business.
They fled their native El Salvador because of gang violence and left their daughter in what they thought was a safer region of the country, in the care of her aunt. She was doing well in first grade, and each night would call her parents to tell them stories of school and how much she liked pretending to be a doctor who could cure sick people.
Then her aunt’s relationship turned abusive, and she decided to try to take the little girl with her to safety in the United States, where she hoped she would be better off living with her mother and father.
Instead, her parents had no idea where she was for days, Maldonado said.
“I want to change the way they treat children in this country. They should treat them well and make sure they’re with their parents,” said the girl’s father.