Migrant children are being held in toxic U.S. detention centers

President Joe Biden’s administration has portrayed its immigration policy as a humane departure from recent precedent. In a March briefing at the White House, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that his agency was coming “out of the depths of cruelty” in which it operated during the Trump administration. But as the new administration prepares to detain thousands of migrant children at sites with histories of toxic contamination, environmental justice advocates are questioning whether such circumstances can truly be considered humane.

Last month, hundreds protested in the Miami-area suburb of Homestead, where the once-largest youth migrant detention center in the U.S. was slated to reopen, despite the fact that it had been deemed too environmentally toxic for humans by the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Air Force, and Miami-Dade County. The Homestead Migrant Detention Facility, which former President Donald Trump temporarily closed in 2019 neighbors a Superfund site where 16 sources of highly contaminated military waste, including arsenic, lead, and mercury, are still found. (It was also notorious for reports of sexual abuse by staff.)

In a move to quell the ruckus, Biden told the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency charged with caring for migrant minors in U.S. custody, to find other options. However, two of the sites they went on to offer instead, Texas’ Fort Bliss and Joint Base San Antonio, are themselves known to be contaminated with toxic chemicals that exceed government safety thresholds. While Joint Base San Antonio is still waiting on new arrivals, 500 unaccompanied youth were moved to El Paso’s Fort Bliss last week.

After the Trump Administration first began toying with the idea of using Fort Bliss as a holding site in 2019, the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice released government documents showing that the facility’s grounds had a history of cancer-causing chemical contamination far above official safety thresholds — and that cleanup of these toxic areas had not been verified. In 1998, some carcinogenic volatile organic compounds were found at more than 460 times the level deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. Since then, at least 80 toxic sites on the base have been identified and remediated, but even after the cleanup effort sites were found to contain levels of arsenic as high as 19 times the EPA’s maximum safe level for residential soil.

At Joint Base San Antonio on the other side of Texas, the water is contaminated with the so-called “forever chemicals” known as PFAS at levels two times higher than what the EPA deems safe, thanks to the military’s decades-long use of toxic firefighting foam. The air pollution levels on the base and in the surrounding community are some of the worst in the country.

The administration’s move to open these new holding sites comes in the middle of a period that has left roughly 20,500 unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody as of Thursday, according to Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS. Reports from the border have described overcrowded facilities that have left hundreds of children younger than 13 jailed for longer than the maximum 72 hours permitted by law. 

In response to concerns from environmental justice activists about the new holding sites, HHS told Grist that the agency continues to take “the safety and health of unaccompanied children referred to [its] care with the utmost seriousness” and that it would conduct environmental assessments before children enter any new facilities, in accordance with its longstanding policy.

News reports and administrative leaks show that other toxic sites are under consideration as new holding sites as well. Since 2018, Earthjustice has identified at least six youth facilities, either in active use or under consideration for future use, that are home to levels of toxins and chemical waste considered unfit for residential use. Many of them are current or former military bases. Earthjustice says that HHS’s environmental assessments are insufficient and that many past sites were deemed safe by the department despite evidence showing contamination levels that were potentially harmful to humans. 

“These children don’t deserve to be sentenced to cancer and other consequences of environmental hazards within these facilities,” said Raul Garcia, a legislative director at EarthJustice. “They shouldn’t be punished for something that isn’t their fault and is out of their control.”

Garcia called it ironic that many of those displaced by natural disasters are subjected to a new form of environmental violence once they reach the U.S. A large portion of youth arriving at the border are from Central American countries that were devastated by Hurricanes Eta and Iota in November.  

“Poor people of color generally tend to receive all the burden of the racist system that already exists within the United States,” said Garcia. “There is this cycle of environmental trauma for immigrants.”

Historically, Earthjustice and other advocacy groups have found more success blocking the use of migrant detention sites that are privately-owned, rather than military bases. In addition to the canceled reopening of the Homestead Migrant Detention Facility in Florida, two other detention sites have been nixed for their environmental failures over the past month. A site in Midland, Texas, was briefly closed to new arrivals after the state warned that its water wasn’t drinkable due to chemical contamination. A proposed holding location at a NASA research center in Moffett, California, was also scrapped after activists highlighted its proximity to a known Superfund site with high levels of toxic chemicals.

In a statement following the opening of Fort Bliss, Earthjustice said that the Biden administration’s recent moves show that the country has failed to create conditions to keep those in custody safe. Pointing to reports of forced sterilization, the use of industrial chemical disinfectants at other migrant detention facilities, and uncontrolled outbreaks of COVID-19,” the group is calling on Biden to immediately halt the use of both private and government-owned sites that “place children in such unsafe facilities” and find options that don’t use “toxic sites, military sites, or detention-like settings” to house children.



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