WASHINGTON — A federal investigation that included surprise inspections was unable to substantiate 16 accusations by advocacy groups that the government packed into frigid cells children caught crossing the border alone, made them sleep on hard floors and provided inadequate food and medical care. Other claims about treatment of the children are still under review, according to the Homeland Security Department.
Inspector General John Roth said in a memo made public Tuesday that immigrants alternately complain that detention facilities are too cold or too hot, but either way, there are cloth or disposable blankets. Likewise, Roth said food service has also improved since the American Civil Liberties Union and four other advocacy groups in June made 116 allegations of wrongdoing, mistreatment and abuses by border agents. Among the complaints was a lack of food.
In the memo to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Roth said his investigators couldn't substantiate any of 16 allegations it investigated. Its investigative findings were presented to federal prosecutors, who declined to prosecute "based on the absence of criminal activities," Roth said.
Roth told Johnson that the remaining 100 complaints are still being investigated by the Immigration Enforcement's Office of Professional Responsibility, CBP's Office of Internal Affairs and the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
In June, the ACLU and others complained of "systematic abuse" of immigrant children caught crossing the border alone. The groups said more than 80 percent of the immigrants complained that they received inadequate food and water, about half were denied medical care, and about one of every four was physically abused.
The complaints included a 13-year-old boy who said he was threatened by an official with a metal rod and was later sexually molested while in custody, a 14-year-old girl who reported her asthma inhaler was confiscated, and a 14-year-old boy who said he was unable to sleep for five days because the lights were always on. A 16-year-old boy said an official told him, "You are in my country now, and we are going to bury you in a hole."
An ACLU Arizona staff attorney, James Lyall, described Roth's memo as "an interim report," and said the inspector general's findings don't discount the severity and volume of complaints. He said the allegations mirror thousands of other complaints filed in recent years.
"The fact that they haven't been able to substantiate these allegations certainly doesn't mean that they aren't true," Lyall said. "At some point where there's smoke, there's fire. The sheer weight and substance of these complaints, across sites, across time, certainly should raise alarms."
Roth's memo said most of the 41 Border Patrol facilities where investigators made 57 unannounced visits in Texas and New Mexico were complying with laws and department policies about treatment of the children. The requirements include providing access to clean toilets and sinks, adequate food and water and access to emergency medical care and telephones.
Since last Oct. 1, more than 62,000 child immigrants have been caught crossing the border alone, mostly in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. The wave of unaccompanied children overwhelmed the Border Patrol's facilities, prompting the agency to house children in temporary holding cells. Thousands of children were also transferred to other Border Patrol facilities along the border.
Roth said investigators from his office also made three unannounced visits to a family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, where more than 600 immigrant women and their children have been held since late June. He said investigators did not see any misconduct during any of the site visits.
Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/acaldwellap