(Corrects Murdza’s title in the second to last paragraph)
By Reade Levinson, Yeganeh Torbati and Kristina Cooke
(Reuters) - One child stopped eating and fell into a depression. Another who could previously walk on his own now asks his mother to carry him everywhere. A third child started biting other children.
These are the experiences of children who have spent just three weeks at a temporary family immigration detention at the South Texas Family Detention Center in Dilley, Texas, attorneys and volunteers who work at the center told Reuters.
The Dilley site is one of only three in the United States designed to hold parents and children together in immigration detention. Some of those who have visited the center say such cases illustrate the emotional problems that can arise from holding families in detention.
“No child or family unit with a child should ever be in detention,” said Alan Shapiro, co-founder of Terra Firma, which promotes immigrant children’s health. He said he has seen children at several facilities show developmental delays and become anxious and withdrawn.
The Dilley facility has playrooms, indoor gym equipment, toys, books and other amenities to provide “a safe and appropriate environment” for immigrant mothers and children, said Amanda Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for private prison company CoreCivic.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which provides medical and mental health care at Dilley, said they take “very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care.”
President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Wednesday aimed at ending his controversial policy of separating children from parents caught entering the country illegally. Under the order, which is likely to be challenged in court, families will now be detained together for the duration of their criminal and immigration proceedings. The latter can take months or even years to complete.
Holding families indefinitely could create a new logistical headache for the Trump administration. Immigrant families are currently housed in facilities in Pennsylvania and Texas that have a total capacity of about 3,300 beds, according to ICE. Those are now at 79 percent capacity, ICE said.
Given the numbers of families crossing the border illegally, the government will quickly run out of beds at those facilities, the only ones in the country set up to house families. Last month, U.S. Border Patrol arrested more than 9,400 family members crossing the southern border illegally.
(For a graphic of current family detention facilities, click here: tmsnrt.rs/2Ia5W3y)
Wednesday’s order directs the Pentagon to “take all legally available measures” to provide facilities available to house immigrant families, including constructing new facilities if necessary.
The Department of Health and Human Services has already completed assessments of three facilities in Texas - Fort Bliss, Goodfellow Air Force base, and Dyess Air Force base - as potential areas to house migrants. It was due to carry out a formal assessment of Little Rock Air Force base in Jacksonville, Arkansas on Thursday, said Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission, a New York based advocacy group, said that while the Texas and Pennsylvania facilities are not currently full, “if they do start sending everybody there, they will fill up.”
She said temporary facilities could be set up at military bases “fairly quickly” but noted that a previous attempt by the Obama administration to rush the construction of a family detention center had resulted in a facility that was “not even close to being compliant” with child standards.
It could take up to three months for the government or its private sector contractors to build proper facilities that are safe, healthy and provide necessary services to detained families, said Daniel Stageman, a scholar on immigration detention at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
A spokeswoman for GEO Group, which operates the Karnes family detention center in Texas, said their company works to “provide a safe and humane environment for those in our care.”
The executive director of the Berks County Residential Center, the family detention center in Pennsylvania, did not respond to a request for comment.
Attorneys and medical professionals who have spent time at such facilities say even short-term detention can traumatize vulnerable children.
A 2016 report by a Department of Homeland Security advisory committee strongly recommended the government discontinue the “general use” of family detention, citing insufficient access to legal counsel, medical and mental health care.
A June 2017 DHS inspector general’s report, however, found that the family detention facilities were “clean, well-organized, and efficiently run,” based on unannounced spot inspections in July 2016.
Katy Murdza, who coordinates the Dilley Pro Bono Project and works five days a week at the facility, said the mental strains of detention were already apparent among families who had been detained at the facility for the past three weeks.
“We see 2-year olds picking up phones from the wall and saying, ‘Dad? Dad?’ They see a male guard and ask where their dad is,” she said.
Reporting by Reade Levinson in New York, Yeganeh Torbati in Washington, and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco. Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington.; Editing by Ross Colvin