The US has a vast system of detention sites scattered across the country, holding more than 20,000 migrant children. In a special investigation, the BBC has uncovered allegations of cold temperatures, sickness, neglect, lice and filth, through a series of interviews with children and staff.
It was midnight on the Rio Grande – the imposing river that forms the border between Texas and Mexico – and lights began to flash on the Mexican side. Voices could be heard in the darkness. Figures emerged, got into a small raft, and began to cross the river.
As the raft appeared on the US side, the faces of the migrants became visible. More than half of them were children. Over March and April, more than 36,000 children crossed into the US unaccompanied by an adult. This was a record high for recent years.
Many children travelling alone set out on their journey hoping to reunite with a parent already in the US. More than 80% of them already have a family member in the country, the US government says.
President Joe Biden has opened the border to unaccompanied children seeking asylum, somewhat relaxing former President Trump’s policy of turning migrants away due to Covid-19.
The children scrambled up the banks, exhausted. Two young cousins held hands. Another youth, Jordy, 17, said he had fled Guatemala because he was afraid of violent gangs operating there. But tonight he was frightened about what might await him in migrant detention centres in the US. He said he had heard stories about them.
“They will put us in an icebox and ask us questions,” he said.
The so-called “iceboxes”, notorious among migrants, are extremely cold rooms or cubicles in US Border Patrol migrant processing facilities.
ordy was told to join a line with other children. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) guards were taking the children’s shoelaces and belts, a process usually reserved for prisoners to prevent them trying to take their own lives.
Jordy and the other children were then taken away by bus into the night. They were to join more than 20,000 migrant children now in US detention, held in a series of extensive camps around the country, at least 14 of which are new.
In late March, CBP released disturbing images of cramped conditions within one particular facility it runs in Donna, Texas – a mass of enormous white tents looming above the small town. The facility was designed to hold 250 people but housed more than 4,000 at peak occupancy.
Journalists have not been allowed to talk to the children inside. Instead we have been tracking down the children who have been released, to find out about conditions in US detention sites.
Ten-year-old Ariany, who crossed into the US alone, spent 22 days in detention this spring, most of them in the Donna camp. She was crammed into a plastic cubicle – as were scores of other children, from toddlers to teens – wrapped in a silver emergency blanket.
“We were very cold,” she said. “We had nowhere to sleep so we shared mats. We were five girls on two mats.”
Ariany was finally reunited with her mother, Sonia, in late March.
She had passed her mother’s contact details onto US officials who were able to locate her. Sonia had fled Honduras six years ago with her son due to gang violence, leaving Ariany – who was too young at the time to make the journey – behind with her older sister.
Cindy, 16, also held in Donna this spring, said there were 80 girls in her cubicle and that she and most of the children were wet under their blankets, due to dripping pipes.
“We all woke up wet.” She said. “We slept on our sides, all hugged, so we stayed warm.” – BBC