Officials to Investigate Reports of Mistreatment of Minors Caught Crossing Border
By JULIA PRESTON – JUNE 12, 2014
Jeh C. Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, spoke Thursday about the response to an influx of unaccompanied minors. Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images
Border officials opened an investigation on Thursday into claims by legal aid groups that border agents were mistreating unaccompanied minors caught crossing the Southwest border illegally.
At a news conference in Washington, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Gil Kerlikowske, said he had ordered internal investigators to examine a complaint filed Wednesday by five legal groups. The complaint was based on interviews with 116 youths, in which they reported being deprived of food and medical care while in Border Patrol holding cells. Some reported physical abuse.
Mr. Kerlikowske’s announcement was a break from past practices for the agency. In recent years, the agency has rarely confirmed investigations of complaints of misconduct by border agents or reported actions resulting from them.
Border authorities are dealing with a humanitarian crisis as over 47,000 young migrants without their parents, mainly from Central America, have been apprehended since October crossing illegally. President Obama has ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate an effort to provide shelters and help the youths reunite with family in this country.
The complaint of abuse was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, among other groups. Mr. Kerlikowske, while pledging to respond, also offered a defense of “absolutely heroic efforts” by Border Patrol agents handling the detention of the youths.
“Agents are doing everything from mixing formula to bringing in their own children’s clothing, and taking care of these kids in a multitude of ways,” Mr. Kerlikowske said. “They are absolutely committed in making sure that these children are treated, not only in the most respectful and humane way, but frankly, in the most loving way.“
Officials also sought to dispel criticism from Republican lawmakers that they are encouraging young people to migrate by allowing them into the country, placing them in shelters and delaying their deportation.
An internal Border Patrol report, based on interviews on May 28 with 230 Central American migrants detained in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, said the main reason they cited for coming was they had heard rumors that the American authorities were giving, only until the end of June, a special entry “permit” to unaccompanied minors and women traveling with children.
Jeh C. Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, said the authorities were required to transfer unaccompanied youths, in accordance with “the best interests of the child,” to Health and Human Services, the federal agency that runs shelters where they receive basic medical care and some education. Health officials must also make efforts to reunite minors with family members in this country.
But the officials said the young migrants remain in deportation proceedings after they have been released to family, and must attend immigration court hearings and comply with judges’ rulings. As recent illegal crossers, they are priorities for deportation.
Mr. Johnson said parents here illegally should not be encouraged to send for their children. “Illegal migration through the South Texas border is not safe,” he said. “I’m not encouraging in any way shape or form illegal migration, that’s the message.”
In Arizona, the attorney general, Tom Horne, demanded in a letter on Thursday that Homeland Security officials stop transferring women with their children who were detained in Texas to that state, or he would sue. In recent days, hundreds of those migrants have been released without assistance at the bus station in Phoenix.
Mr. Johnson told Congress on Wednesday that since June 1, mainly unaccompanied minors, rather than women with children, were being transferred for processing to Arizona, and that the minors would not be released in the state.
Elena Schneider contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on June 13, 2014, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Officials to Investigate Reports of Mistreatment of Minors Caught Crossing Border.