Immigration & Justice

Thousands of Documents Show Abuse and Neglect of Unaccompanied Immigrant Kids in U.S. Custody

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

In December 2014, the ACLU’s Border Litigation Project, which is a joint project of ACLU affiliates in San Diego, Imperial Counties, and Arizona, filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for records relating to what they feared was abuse of children in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a sub-agency of the Department of Homeland Security.

The group filed the FOIA request after immigrants rights activists and legal service providers noticed a significant increase in complaints of abuse by kids in CPB custody in 2014.

Among the complaints were stories of officials unnecessarily pointing their guns at the kids, shooting them with tasers reportedly for amusement or punishment, hitting or kicking the kids, threatening them with rape or death, and more. At the same time, the accounts of the young people, plus internal government reports, told of kids in government custody being kept in terrible conditions such as freezing rooms with no blankets.

When the FOIA request for the records was ignored, the ACLU, along with the law firm, Cooley LLP, filed a FOIA lawsuit in federal court to compel the government to release the asked for documents.

After much foot dragging, and the imposition of several court-ordered deadlines, the Department of Homeland Security finally began to slowly hand over the requested material.

In all, the ACLU and company, received more than 3000 documents dated between 2009 and 2014, which featured a terrifying number of cases “of shocking violence and abuse against unaccompanied migrant children.”

Now a new report released this week by the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School—along with ACLU Border Rights, and the ACLU Border Litigation Project—has gone deeply into the those 3000 documents, along with a pile of related information.

The results, outlined in the 50-page report are extremely disturbing.

“The students reviewing these records were shocked by the abuse and neglect these children were subjected to at the hands of U.S. officials,” said Claudia Flores, faculty director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. “The fact that these children were already so vulnerable—most traveling alone in hopes of escaping violence and poverty in their home countries—made the unlawful and inhumane actions reflected in the documents even more distressing,”

The rules

According to the U.S. government, tens of thousands of Central American and Mexican children travel alone to the United States every year to escape violence and  poverty in their home countries.

U.S.  Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a sub-agency of the Department of Homeland Security  (DHS), detains many of these children when they arrive at U.S. ports of entry or cross the U.S. border.

At one time, kids who tried to cross the U.S. Border by themselves or were either turned away or apprehended and detained in adult detention facilities. But, when the 1980s brought more and more unaccompanied kids into adult immigration lock-ups, alarmed advocates began pushing hard for a change. Finally in 1997 a legal settlement known Flores v. Reno created nationwide standards regarding how such children must be treated.

Nearly 20 years later, in early 2015, the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, and others brought a second lawsuit to enforce the Flores settlement. In July and August of 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Dolly M. Gee tersely informing the government that it must apply the settlement to all minors, including those detained with family members.

Two years after that, in 2017, a new federal judge slammed DHS for continuing to disregard critical protections for children in detention and ordered the government to identify a juvenile coordinator who was to report directly to the court on the government’s compliance with the Flores settlement. Furthermore, if the court was not satisfied with the government’s progress after one year, the judge might appoint an independent monitor.

The allegations

Among the allegations that the University of Chicago Report documented were the reports that certain individual officials:

*Punched a child’s head three times;

*Kicked a child in the ribs;

*Used a stun gun on a boy, causing him to fall to the ground, shaking, with his eyes rolling back in his head;

*Verbally abused detained children, calling them dogs and “other ugly things;”

*Denied detained children permission to stand or move freely for days and threatened children who stood up with transfer to solitary confinement in a small, freezing room;

*Denied a pregnant minor medical attention when she reported pain, which preceded a stillbirth;

*Subjected a 16-year-old girl to a search in which they “forcefully spread her legs and touched her private parts so hard that she screamed;”

*Left a 4-pound premature baby and her minor mother in an overcrowded and dirty cell full of sick people, against medical advice;

*Threw out a child’s birth certificate and threatened him with sexual abuse by an adult male detainee;

*Ran over a 17-year-old with a patrol vehicle and then punched him several times;

The report also shows evidence of CBP holding migrant children in excess of the 72-hour maximum period permitted by law, as well as officials’ deporting or attempting to deport children without due process, and using threats and coercion.

And the list goes on from there.

Dangerous homes

Migrants, generally, risk their lives in search of safety, stability, and opportunity,” write the University of Chicago report’s authors.

“During migration, they cross dangerous terrain under extreme conditions, rely on treacherous forms of transportation, and travel without consistent access to food or water. Migrants are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, theft, human traffickers, and other criminal actors seeking to benefit from their desperation.”

As one might imagine, children are the most vulnerable immigrants, especially when they’re traveling alone.

Right now, when it comes to unaccompanied child immigrants arriving in the U.S., the four most common countries of origin are Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. According to the report, the so-called “Northern Triangle,” which include El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, is considered one of the most violent regions in the world. Honduras, for example is first in the world for homicides per capita. El Salvador is fourth. Guatemala is fifth. As a consequence, write the report’s authors, kids who are immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador usually are escaping from the areas on those two countries that are most impacted by gang violence.

Those who make it through the journey generally try to enter the U.S. somewhere along the southern border. Many have family members already here waiting for them, with whom they hope to reunite. Often these kids present themselves to CBP officers or Border Patrol agents, who then take them into custody.

And some of those officers and agents allegedly mistreat these already traumatized kids in unconscionable ways.

The documents that form the basis of the report are, as the authors put it, “filled with terror and abuse in COB custody.” They were written as reported by children to clinicians in advocacy organizations in the course of post-release physical and psychological evaluations.

“At best,” states the report, “this about amounts to unprofessional, degrading mistreatment of vulnerable minors. At worst, the abuse amounts to unlawful and potentially criminal misconduct by federal immigration officials.” And the documents show that this reported abuse occurs at each stage of a child’s interaction with CBP, from apprehension to detention to deportation. And it is not limited to one state but occurs in California, Arizona, Texas, and also in the interior of the United States.

According to the report’s authors, these ACLU-aquired documents also reveal “DHS’s complete institutional failure to investigate or address suspected child abuse.” There is no evidence that DHS has “taken any action to address or rectify this pattern of abuse,” they write.

To the contrary, urgent intervention is needed to protect immigrant kids from the “mistreatment, abuse, and violence that is otherwise bound to recur.”

You can read the ACLU documents containing the complaints used in the report for yourself here. And the full set of FOIA’d documents are archived here.


  • Very disturbing to say the least. If not but should be embarrassing to the Border Patrol Agents who did not participate in the disgusting acts. There’s a very very thin line between cowards and bullies, with or without a badge. Surprisingly America points the finger at other countries with vile behavior toward children in custody, No better than Nazi German Soldiers who killed Jewish and Polish children in the Holocaust era.

  • And who was the president during all these abuses? Barack Hussein Obama? Maybe Barack should have got a second Nobel Prize for stupidity?

  • In a kind of bizarre political triple bank shot ,ruthless Central American parents (I use the word “parents” loosely) , the pro immigration lobby, and the aclu are using these “kids” ( I’d like to see pictures of some of these “teens”) as a sort of reverse hostages. There! you have our kids, now you have to give us what we want or else! I never really took Trump’s wall seriously before, but I’m starting to see that we better hurry up and get that thing built.

  • Ya America is basically nazi Germany, that’s why they’re sending their kids up here without escort, What a knucklehead

  • I see no valid arguments in opposition to the article, specifically the thousands of pages of documents that were reluctantly rendered because of pressure from the ACLU coupled with FOIA. Any mature responses out there?

  • Mature response?? Ok. Build the Wall. Take Illegal Immigration out of the equation and you won’t have the opportunity for any abuse, mistakes or political opportunism in the 1st place.

  • Then, when the pressure on the overloaded System eases up, we can actually start helping those that really need and deserve it.

    The Lefts open border policies are actually harming the people they say they want to protect.

    With an overloaded system, nobody wins.

    But the Left is blinded by their power and control, coupled with their insatiable appetite for votes.

  • National border not a valid argument? Someone should let Israel know ,their border-wall-fence seems to come in mighty handy.

  • Weak deflection as the subject is concerning the treatment of alien children by Border Patrol Agents in their U.S. custody.

  • My earlier comment is for Maj. Kong. I might add by asking, have you read any of the documentation concerning the subject matter. Are you for or against the mistreatment of the children in U. S. custody? Do you give the nod of approval for misconduct by Border Agents as documented? Yes or no would be suffice for both questions.

  • Hannah, Just because allegations are documented doesn’t make them true. That’s all this story contains, allegations. Just in case you’re new to this website, Witness la doesn’t really go for that “both sides of the story”, journalism thing. It’s pretty much just a cut and paste ,support the narrative deal. Of course I’m for the well being of children. Now, do you join me in denouncing the parents of these unfortunate children, sent alone to face the horrors you so fervently believe to be true? A yes or no answer will suffice

  • Since this post turned into Nazism, I can think of a Nazi. Do you remember when his excellency released the infamous list of “300” to bolster his case pending appeal to the California Supreme Court? The list of “300” he wants to be included in the “DA Brady” list. Well, and have been leaking his excellency corruption, and their “Dear Leader” is mad. Here is his decree: BY ORDER OF THE SHERIFF:
    From: Sheriff Department Announcement

    Date: May 25, 2018

    To: All LASD Employees

    Subject: LASD Special Message – Discussing Confidential Information

    ***LASD Special Message***


    The Department has trust in each of you! Department members must be cognizant of the confidential information entrusted to them on a daily basis. Information contained within Department databases, reports and files are confidential and/or sensitive and should not be communicated to others without a business reason. Department members need to think twice before communicating about Department-related topics.

    The official business of the Department is confidential. Members shall only discuss or give official information to persons for whom the information is intended; as directed by a superior officer; and/or as required by law.

    When Department members disclose confidential information, the rumor mill begins and will circulate even wider. If someone tells you confidential information, admonish that person that confidential information is CONFIDENTIAL.

    Members shall only divulge the contents of any directive when required to do so by the nature of the directive. The content of any criminal record or other official information maintained by the Department shall be disclosed only to those authorized by state and federal statute.

    The best way to stop the release of confidential information is by not repeating it to anyone other than Department members who have a business reason to know. It is important to re-brief everyone, making it clear that confidential information must remain within the LASD.

  • These people though, these Americans, U.S. Citizen and the ACLU don’t give a damn about and you won’t see Celeste write a word about then but they’ll damn well make sure those who terrorize them get every right afforded them no matter how heinous their crime because that’s no big deal to them…#victimsnevermatterunlesstheircopvictims.
    Alderman Walter Burnett speaking about West Side crime, says seniors call asking kids to watch them unload groceries for their safety. People giving up their homes due to safety problems. “This is a life and death situation for us on the West Side,” he said.

  • Mr Ownership,
    Your retort lacks merit. In the final analysis we are sure of this, the abuse and indispiciable behavior by the U.S. Border Patrol Agents against minors in their custody totally unacceptable, period.

  • Eerily mirrors the abuse and torture of detainees by U.S. Soldiers who were in charge of Abu Ghraib.

  • On this day, much gratitude and everlasting appreciation for members of the United States Armed Forces, past and present who kept and continues to keep our country safe. Semper Fi.

  • 30 wounded 7 dead in Chicago over the holiday weekend with 1,000 extra officers deployed.

    You’ll never hear about it here. Cops didn’t kill them.

  • Maj. Kong is right, this isn’t Nazi Germany, although Maj. Kong, Ownership, Sure Fire and their ilk would make great Nazis. Don’t you just love how Maj. Kong and his ilk try to couch it as if they care about these children. As far as he is concerned, they are little gang members or future gang members. “Ruthless Central American parents?” Words from a man who has faced no travails in his simpleton life and whose greatest accomplishment is wearing a piece of metal on his chest and smacking black kids around. I don’t think anyone makes a thousand mile journey on top of a train, risking life and limb and leaving family behind, lightly. Personally, I’ll take the 10 year old that made the journey over Maj. Kong kid who squeals when he gets hit by the soccer ball.

  • Cut through the usual vitriol And Whatta you know? I even have cf agreeing with me. Not sure what the soccer ball reference is supposed to mean, but hey, cf’s gotta crawl before she can walk I guess. She’ll be sporting a MAGA halter top before it’s all over.

  • CF…. Again, nothing constructive, no solutions, no sustainable agenda and no answers. Just adolescent insults and worthless vitriol.

    You truly are a worthless piece of shit.

  • Maj. Kong, I would borrow your halter top, but I am sure its too big. I have seen many a pot bellied retired cop, and for some reason they tend to be obese. So, when I get to that point, Ill buy my own.

    Ownership, like you offer solutions. Please. Its above your pay grade. Stick to driving that patrol car of your and harassing black kids.

    Sure Fire, can you translate what you wrote. Please note I am not a police officer, so writing as if this site where a police report is not helpful. As they say where I come from, WTF did you say? I am questioning or criticizing the substance of what you said, I just cannot understand what you said.

  • Folks:

    The horrific abuses detailed in this story are gleaned from documents dated between 2009 and 2014 (paragraph #6).

    Obama’s Presidency is January 20, 2009–January 20, 2017.

    Who woulda thunk?

  • Of course it’s another case of BTB…..Blame The Brother. I love how “you guys” pass the buck.

    It’s getting old just like the infamous phrase of “stop resisting” to a motionless suspect.

  • No Reg/CF, though I know you’re functioning at the level of the common gutter dweller simply ask somebody else for help, never me.

  • Wow Mr Tibbs doesn’t like the facts like most liberals and has to turn it into a racial issue just like most liberals. I guess history will show Obama was president during a different time period.

  • Here’s a simple fix for those who disagree > Don’t go to Starbucks or buy their products. Neither Trump or Obama had anything to do with Starbucks in their so called remedy. Go figure.

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