Workers who helped care for children who crossed into the country illegally say they witnessed “gross mismanagement and specific endangerment to public health and safety” at a military base in Texas.
Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire were temporarily assigned in mid-May by the Department of Health and Human Services to help care for illegal immigrant youth at an emergency site on Fort Bliss, a military base outside of El Paso.
Thousands of unaccompanied children were once housed there in large tents amid a continuing surge of illegal immigration during the Biden era. The site started accepting children in late March. About 800 remained as of late June.
Elkin and Mulaire said in a whistleblower complaint lodged this week that they saw major issues but were discouraged from reporting what they witnessed, including being told to provide no feedback during their first 10 days of work.
The pair, who are attorneys in the Chicago District Office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, ignored the warnings and filed complaints with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General. But the concerns were ignored and no remedial action has been taken, they said.
Among the issues was the crowding of children in the tents, making it hard or impossible to see or help children in distress, noise being at “an intolerable volume,” and the tents being dirty and often having “a foul odor like a locker room.”
“Dust and sand were everywhere. When sandstorms occurred (as they periodically do in El Paso), the air inside the tents became visibly cloudy with dust, which made its way into everyone’s eyes, ears, and lungs,” the whistleblowers said.
“Clean bedding and clothes were not regularly provided. Although many children were housed in these tents for as long as two months (or more), it appeared their bedding was never washed; many beds were visibly dirty. The children also reported having insufficient clean underwear and socks, which in turn made them reluctant to exercise or to bathe because they knew they lacked clean clothes to change into. It was not uncommon in the girls’ tent, for example, for the children to plead for clean underwear so that they could take a shower and have something clean to change into.”
The lawyers said the biggest problem was the use of staffers they felt were unsuitable for the job. Contractors with Servpro, whose website states that it is a national leader in fire, water, mold, and other cleanup and restoration services, were placed in charge of some of the children, they said.
“Youth care is not in its portfolio. Contractor staff told Ms. Elkin and Mr. Mulaire that they had received no training prior to beginning work and had little guidance about what their role was,” according to the complaint, which was sent to members of Congress and the HHS inspector general’s office on July 7 by the Government Accountability Project, which is representing the whistleblowers.
Elkin and Mulwaire said in a statement: “After witnessing the dire conditions at Fort Bliss, we feel it is our obligation to speak out. Regardless of one’s views about immigration policy, the reality is that these unaccompanied children are here now and are in U.S. custody. HHS must act now to ensure the children are treated in a safe and humane manner.”
David Seide, senior counsel for the project, said: “The time our clients spent at Fort Bliss was alarming. Each day seemed to bring new examples of deficiencies in the care of the children and resulting risks to their health. Instances of gross mismanagement were pervasive.”
HHS and Servpro didn’t respond to requests for comment by press time.
Children housed at Fort Bliss and other emergency shelters testified in written statements last month that they were housed in crowded areas, not given clean clothes, and dealt with troubling conditions such as not allowed regular phone calls with families.
A 17-year-old girl from Guatemala said that she was at the Fort Bliss emergency site for two months, starting April 4. During that time, she experienced higher blood pressure stemming from anxiety due to bright lights that made it hard to sleep and having nowhere to be alone or have any privacy.
“I spend most of my time here laying down in my bunk, and sometimes crying. I only get up to go to meals or go to the bathroom,” she wrote in a document filed in federal court.
Most children who spoke to Dr. Paul Wise, a special expert helping keep tabs on HHS facilities, “were positive when describing the basic conditions” at the Fort Bliss site, according to a separate filing in the same case. Still, the minors complained about the lack of privacy, significant delays in making calls to family members, and having to wait for weeks between appointments with case management staffers.
After Vice President Kamala Harris visited El Paso last month, her spokeswoman told reporters that the president has instructed top officials to probe the conditions at the Fort Bliss site.
“The administration is taking this very seriously. Extremely seriously,” spokeswoman Symone Sanders said.
The number of unaccompanied children in HHS custody soared above 20,000 earlier this year after President Joe Biden’s administration loosened a number of Trump-era border restrictions. As of July 5, there were 14,539 such children in HHS custody and 928 in the custody of Customs and Border Protection.