Inhumane Conditions in Border Detention Centers Violate U.S. Flores Settlement Agreement and Endanger Children

By Nicole Gregory

By Nicole Gregory

On December 25, 2018, an eight-year-old boy from Guatemala, Felipe Gómez Alonzo, died in U.S. custody while being detained at the southwest U.S. border.[1] Alonzo’s death follows the death of another Guatemalan child, seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, who was also in custody of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), just three weeks prior.[2] The border detention centers’ inhumane conditions, which could lead to or contribute to children’s medical problems, violate the Flores settlement agreement, which outlines condition requirements for facilities detaining children at the U.S. border.

Alonzo and his father entered the United States in El Paso, Texas, near the location at which border patrol officials apprehended them for illegal entry.[3] CBP officials drove them to a border control station ninety miles south in Alamogordo.[4]  At first, officials thought that Alonzo had a cold.[5] Officials took Alonzo to the hospital, where doctors determined that he also had a fever.[6] Medical providers prescribed Alonzo with amoxicillin and ibuprofen, and they sent Alonzo back to the holding facility.[7] After he returned to the facility, Alonzo started vomiting.[8] He returned to the hospital, where he later died.[9] The New Mexico Office of Medical Investigator stated that Alonzo’s autopsy showed he had Influenza B, or the flu.[10] Although it is unclear whether CBP conditions or procedures directly caused his death, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stated after Alonzo’s death, “Moving forward, all children will receive a more thorough hands on assessment at the earliest possible time post apprehension.”[11]

Similar to Alonzo, CBP apprehended Maquin and her father at the New Mexico border.[12] Her family’s attorney reports that while detained at the port of entry, Maquin did not receive water for the eight hours she was there.[13] Her father claims that she started vomiting before they left for a ninety-minute bus ride to a border patrol station.[14] After they arrived, medical providers found that Maquin’s temperature was 105.7 degrees Fahrenheit.[15] Emergency medical technicians attempted to revive her twice; she was flown to a hospital in El Paso where she passed away.[16] CBP officials stated that Maquin died from dehydration.[17] After the incident, Congressional Democrats questioned whether CBP officials could have spotted Macquin’s symptoms or whether she could have been air lifted to a hospital.[18]

According to CBP Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan, no children have died within the last decade in CBP control.[19] This statistic demands the question, “Why now?” The Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which calls for criminally prosecuting those who cross the U.S. border illegally, coupled with these child immigrant deaths have raised questions about the current condition standards at detention facilities.[20] The Trump administration has been challenged with many lawsuits regarding the conditions of the migrant holding facilities.[21] Detained immigrants have filed lawsuits regarding the detention centers’ spoiled food, unsanitary drinking water, and inadequate opportunities to bathe, among other conditions.[22]

The inhumane conditions at the CBP detention centers violate the Flores Settlement Agreement of 1997, which addresses child welfare violations within U.S. detention centers.[23] The U.S. federal government and child welfare and legal advocates reached this settlement after a class action lawsuit challenged the procedures regarding detention, treatment, and release of immigrant children.[24] The Flores settlement dictates the length of time and conditions in which immigrant children may be held in detention.[25] The government must “hold minors in facilities that are sanitary and that are consistent with the government’s concern for particular vulnerability of minors.”[26] According to the Congressional Research Service, the Flores settlement requires a certain quality of life for detained minors, including “1) food and drinking water, 2) medical assistance, 3) toilets and sinks, 4) adequate temperature control and ventilation, 5) adequate supervision to protect minors from others, and (6) separation from unrelated adults whenever possible.”[27]

U.S. detention centers have violated many of these Flores settlement requirements. Children sleep side by side on ground mats and are given only one mylar blanket.[28] At one facility in McAllen, Texas, detainees reported that sleep is almost impossible because the lights are left on, there is no air circulation, and the temperatures are so low that detainees call it “la hielera,” or the icebox.[29] They described their only food, bologna sandwiches, as half-frozen with a strong chlorine taste.[30] The toilets had no seat covers or toilet paper.[31]

Another reason for the increase in deaths of children in CBP custody may be lack of medical attention. Some facilities provide limited medical screening for chickenpox, lice, or scabies, whereas others may not provide any medical services at all.[32] The Flores settlement requires “medical assistance if the minor is need of emergency services.”[33] However, one five-year-old girl was undiagnosed with appendicitis for five days, despite cries for help from her mother.[34] Another four-year-old boy entered the United States with a broken arm and the detention facility only provided him with mild pain medication.[35]

One U.S. District Court has already ruled that a residential treatment center in Manvel, Texas violated the Flores settlement.[36] In July 2018, Judge Dolly Gee of U.S. District Court of the Central District of California found that Shiloh Residential Treatment Center, a center holding immigrant children, violated the Flores settlement because it was unlicensed by an appropriate state agency, which is a requirement under Flores.[37] Judge Gee ordered the Trump administration to transfer all undocumented immigrant minors out of the detention facility.[38] Further, she ordered that the government must get parental consent before giving migrant children psychotropic drugs, unless it is an emergency.[39] With this recent order, it is possible more courts will find that other detention centers have also violated the Flores settlement.

The Flores settlement was reached to keep immigrant children safe. The inhumane detention of children and families seeking to immigrate to the Untied States must end to avoid further Flores violations. Because of Alonzo’s death, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Or.) will make his third trip to the border in his investigation of the Trump administration’s ongoing mistreatment of migrant children.[40] Along with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the senator plans to question CBP officials and Trump administration staff to investigate the child deaths and determine whether enough is being done to prevent more deaths.[41] Hopefully, the investigation will shed light on the Flores settlement violations across the U.S. border detention centers and lead to substantive changes in immigration policies and attitudes that fuel mistreatment, even of children.


[1] Miriam Jordan, 8-Year-Old Migrant Child from Guatemala Dies in U.S. Custody, N.Y. Times (Dec. 25, 2018), https://www.nyties.com/2018/12/25/us/guatemalan-boy-dies-border-patrol.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Carma Hassan et. al, Guatemalan Boy Who Died in US Custody had the Flu, Medical Examiner Says, CNN (Dec. 29, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/28/us/guatemalan-boy-border-patrol-death/index.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Jordan, supranote 1. 

[7]  Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10]  Hassan, supra  note 4.

[11] Geneva Sands & Katie Sullivan, Nielsen Says All Children in Border Patrol Custody Have Received Medical Screenings, CNN (Dec. 27, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/26/politics/dhs-nielsen-migrant-children-custody/index.html.

[12] Nomaan Merchant, US Says 2nd Guatemalan Child Dies in Immigration Custody, Wash. Post (Dec. 25, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/us-says-8-year-old-guatemalan-boy-has-died-in-custody/2018/12/25/25145750-0872-11e9-8942-0ef442e59094_story.html?utm_term=.db2101513902.

[13] Emanuella Grinberg, The Body of the 7-Year-Old Girl Who Died in US Custody Returns to Guatemala, CNN (Dec. 23, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/23/americas/guatemala-jakelin-caal-maquin-returns-home/index.html.

[14] Id.

[15] Merchant, supra note 12.

[16] Id.

[17] Jordan, supra note 1.

[18] Merchant, supra note 12.

[19]  Doug Stanglin, Two Children Have Died in US Border Custody This Month. Before That, None in a Decade. Why Now?, USA Today (Dec. 27, 2018), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/12/27/us-mexico-border-deaths-guatemalan-boy-girl-deaths-rare-occurrence/2420568002/.

[20] See Memorandum from Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions to Federal Prosecutors Along the Southwest Border (Apr. 6, 2018) (describing zero-tolerance for offenses under 8 U.S.C. §1325(a)), available athttps://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1049751/download. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy that implemented a renewed commitment to criminal immigration enforcement. This zero-tolerance policy led to the separation of children from their parents while parents were criminally prosecuted. On June 20, 2018, President Donald Trump signed an executive order halting family separation, but stated that “zero-tolerance” policy would continue. Q&A; Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance” Immigration Policy, Human Rights Watch (Apr. 16, 2018), https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/08/16/qa-trump-administrations-zero-tolerance-immigration-policy.

[21] See, e.g., Memorandum in Support of Motion to Enforce Class Action Settlement, Flores v. Sessions, No. CV 85-4544-DMG (ARGx) 2018 WL 3740363 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 16, 2018).

[22] Exhibits in Support of Motion to Enforce Settlement, Flores v. Sessions, No. CV 85-4544-DMG (AGRx) (C.D. Cal. Apr. 23, 3018), available athttps://www.aila.org/File/Related/14111359aa.pdf (including statements of migrant children regarding their experiences of being forcibly drugged while detained in federal facilities; some children stated that they would not be released unless they took medication, including psychotropic drugs).  

[23] Stipulated Settlement Agreement at 7-8, Flores v. Reno, No. CV 85-4544-RJK(Px) (C.D. Cal. Jan. 17, 1997), available at http://www.aclu.org/files/pdfs/immigrants/flores_v_meese_agreement.pdf [hereinafter Flores Settlement Agreement].

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26]Id.

[27] William A. Kandel, Cong. Research Serv., Unaccompanied Alien Children: An Overview 3-4 (2017), https://www.sfbar.org/forms/lawyerreferrals/immigration/unaccompanied-alien-children-an-overview.pdf.

[28] Jordan, supra note 1.

[29] Andrew Gumbel, ‘They Were Laughing at Us’: Immigrants Tell of Cruelty, Illness and Filth in US Detention, The Guardian (Sept. 12, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/12/us-immigration-detention-facilities.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Jordan, supra note 1.

[33] Flores Settlement Agreement at 4. 

[34] Gumbel, supra note 29.

[35] Id.

[36] Flores v. Sessions, CV 85-4544-DMG (AGRx) (C.D. Cal. July 30, 2018) (order re plaintiff’s motion to enforce class action settlement), available athttps://www.aila.org/File/Related/14111359ae.pdf.

[37] Id.at 23. 

[38] Id. at 14.

[39] Id. at 23-24 (finding that Shiloh Residential Treatment Center’s administering of psychotropic drugs violated paragraphs 6 and 9 of the Flores settlement agreement).

[40] Nate Hanson, Merkley Returning to Border to Investigate Death of Guatemalan Boy in US Custody, KGW8 (Dec. 5, 2019), https://www.kgw.com/article/news/politics/sen-merkley-returning-to-border-to-investigate-death-of-guatemalan-boy-in-us-custody/283-3cecbf22-8bd8-4ae2-bec0-bf07b8203b45.

[41] KOIN 6 News Staff, Merkley to Visit Border After Death of Guatemalan Boy, KOIN 6 (Jan. 7, 2019), https://www.koin.com/news/national/merkley-to-visit-border-after-death-of-guatemalan-boy/1689959835.