https://reveal-player.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/733_Reveal_PC.mp3

When unaccompanied children arrive alone at the U.S. border and seek asylum, they get sent to cells, then to government-funded shelters, where they wait to be released to family members or sponsors. Kids can spend months, sometimes years, at these shelters, and they can be secretive places. It’s hard for reporters and even government officials to get access to the shelters. But Reveal reporters Aura Bogado and Laura C. Morel found that one group sometimes entering shelters is police. 

Reveal had to sue the federal government to get the records on migrant children in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The documents show that since 2014, at least 84 children held in shelters have been turned over to law enforcement. 

First, Bogado and Morel share the story of a 16-year-old asylum seeker from Honduras who was tased by a Texas sheriff’s deputy. The incident was caught on the deputy’s body camera, which also captured the deputy’s partner as he insulted the teenager, calling him “El Stupido.” Then, we hear another disturbing story of a 17-year-old boy who briefly grabbed another teenager – and wound up being arrested for assault, held in jail and deported. 

These are cases of overpolicing in a place where there are no bystanders to record, a place that is supposed to be taking care of vulnerable children. With a new administration, will anything change?

Dig Deeper

Read:I’m going to tase this kid’: Government shelters are turning refugee children over to police

Read: Texas deputy who tased migrant child placed on administrative leave

Watch: Bodycam footage obtained by Reveal shows the tasering of a migrant child

Credits

Reporters: Aura Bogado and Laura C. Morel | Lead producer: Ike Sriskandarajah | Producers: Emily Guerin and Rowan Moore-Gerety | Editors: Cynthia Rodriguez and Casey Miner | Digital editor: Andy Donohue | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Molly Mendoza | Score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda with help from Claire Mullen and Steven Rascón | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson 

Special thanks to Patrick Michels, Adriana Eldiz, Alexandra Gutierrez, David Rodriguez and Melissa Lewis for their help with reporting this episode.

Transcript

Speaker 1: This episode is supported by Wyoming Public Media’s Carbon Valley. I’d like to recommend another series I think you’ll enjoy. Carbon Valley is a funny, sentimental, and informative show about the future of coal. It tracks Wyoming’s dream of creating its own Silicon Valley, but with coal. Host Cooper McKim tells the story by following one startup that’s developing carbon capture, which some think could save coal and the climate too. If they do enough, they could win millions of dollars, but will any of it help coal? Listen to Carbon Valley wherever you get your podcasts.

Speaker 1: Reveal is brought to you by Progressive. Have you tried the name your price tool yet? It works just the way it sounds. You tell Progressive how much you want to pay for car insurance and they’ll show you coverage options that fit your budget. It’s easy to start a quote, and you’ll be able to find a rate that works for you. It’s just one of the many ways you can save with Progressive. Get your quote today at progressive.com and see why four out of five new auto customers recommend Progressive. Progressive Casualty Insurance Company and affiliates. Price and coverage match limited by state law.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal, I’m Al Letson. In March of last year, when the pandemic was first taking a grip on the United States, then President Trump closed the border to asylum seekers, citing Title 42 of the public health code. The restriction remains in place under President Biden, but with a significant exception, unaccompanied migrant children are now being allowed to enter. Biden explained his rationale a few months ago.

Joe Biden: The idea that I’m going to say, which I would never do, when an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we’re just going to let him starve to death and stay on the other side. No previous administrations did that either except Trump. I’m not going to do it.

Al Letson: When kids arrive alone, they get sent to cells near the border then to government-sponsored shelters where they wait to be released to family members or sponsors. Kids spend months, sometimes years at these shelters and they can be secretive places. It’s hard for elected officials to gain access and reporters usually only get inside during the occasional highly scripted tours. But a few years ago, Reveal’s Aura Bogado heard the police were entering these shelters because the staff were calling 911 for help with discipline. Migrant children were getting arrested and even being prosecuted as adults. Reveal’s immigration team started to track down more information on individual cases and they uncovered body-worn camera footage of a then 16-year old boy, an asylum seeker from Honduras, being tased by a deputy sheriff in Texas. Aura and her reporting partner, Laura Morel, first reported on the video in June. News outlets from CNN to local stations in San Antonio picked up the story and had a migrant

Speaker 4: A migrant teen tased by a Bexar County Sheriff’s deputy. Inside of a-

Al Letson: It was an example of over-policing in a place where there are no bystanders to record, a place that’s supposed to be taking care of vulnerable children. Aura is here with me now. Hey, Aura.

Aura Bogado: Hey, Al.

Al Letson: So you got this body cam footage. Can you walk us through what happens in it?

Aura Bogado: It’s about 3:00 PM in the afternoon on May 12th, 2020, when Sheriff’s Deputy Patrick Divers gets out of his cruiser at the Southwest Key Casa Blanca shelter in San Antonio, Texas. The shelter is funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. And just to be clear, this isn’t an ICE detention center, it’s for children who show up at the border alone.

Speaker 6: One of our youth is acting really crazy. He’s been breaking stuff. And I mean, it’s already past the point. He’s super aggressive. We can’t control him, deescalate for nothing. He has anger issues.

Deputy Divers: Obviously.

Speaker 6: Yeah, for sure.

Aura Bogado: From the start, we hear Deputy Divers drawing a conclusion about the child and about his behavior before he even lays eyes on him. Divers and the staff are walking inside the shelter, which looks kind of old and institutional and the staff member tells Divers something pretty important almost right away.

Speaker 6: He speaks Spanish. He speaks Spanish. I don’t know if he understands English.

Aura Bogado: The first of many times, Deputy Divers is told the boy doesn’t speak English. Divers and the shelter staffer walk down a hallway. It’s crowded with lots of worried-looking staff members wearing surgical masks, some of which are pulled down below their chins.

Deputy Divers: What’s he mad about?

Speaker 6: He loses his temper pretty quick, apparently something in educational class that he didn’t like.

Aura Bogado: The boy is sitting on the lid of a toilet in a bathroom. He’s wearing a navy blue t-shirt. His hair is tied up in a top knot. We’re not using his name because he’s a minor and we want to protect his identity as a child seeking asylum in the US.

Deputy Divers: What’s going on?

Boy: ¿Qué querés vos?

Shelter staff: He doesn’t talk in English. 

Boy:  ¿Qué me vas a hacer? ¿Qué me vas a hacer? Llevame, me vale [bleep].

Ricardo Cisneros: No te vamos a llevar. 

Boy: A la [bleep]puta.

Aura Bogado: The boy is immediately defensive. And the thing you need to know is that at this point, the boy’s been in this shelter for about a week, but he’s been in the refugee agency-sponsored shelter system for nine months and shuffled around between five different shelters. You can hear him shouting and cursing and saying, what are you going to do to me? And he’s like, take me, see if I care. And a staff member answers, we’re not taking you anywhere.

Ricardo Cisneros: Nadie te va a llevar. Estamos aquí para asegurar… 

Boy: Tocame a ver que pedo.

Aura Bogado: The other voice you hear speaking in Spanish to the boy is Ricardo Cisneros. He’s the interim shelter director here at the time, and he didn’t want to speak to us for this story. The boy is saying to touch me and see what happens. And Cisneros is reassuring him that he’s not going anywhere, that no one’s going to touch him. I want you to stay with us, he tells the child.

Cisneros: No quiero que nadie te lleve. No entiendes que no quiero que nadie te lleve, quiero que te quedes acá con nosotros.

Aura Bogado: The next few minutes are tense. The boy nods towards the deputy and says-

Boy: ¿Creés que te tengo miedo, maje, porque andás con la pistola [bleep]culera maje…

Aura Bogado: You think I’m scared of you because you have that gun? Divers, he keeps watching, but doesn’t intervene. Wait until my partner gets here, he says, we’ll take care of this. Two and a half minutes later, his partner, Deputy Harold Schneider, does arrive. Divers pulls out his taser and moves toward the bathroom door.

Deputy Divers: All right, ready?

Deputy Divers: I’m going to tase this kid.

Aura Bogado: Ready, I’m going to tase this kid, he says.

Boy: Dale, [bleep]puta, dale. 

Deputy Divers: Stand up.

Aura Bogado: I want to underscore how little Divers has done up to this point. According to the sheriff department’s own guidelines, he’s largely stood in the hallway this whole time, rarely speaking to the boy at all. And when he does it’s to yell in English. He hasn’t tried to calm the boy down. Now he’s pointing his taser at the boy who’s standing in front of the toilet, looking down as he ties the drawstring on his pants. And a quick warning for our listeners, this next part, it’s pretty hard to hear.

Deputy Divers: Stand up, stand up. Turn around. Turn around. Turn around now.

Aura Bogado: Divers shoots the boy with the taser and then presses it against his body over and over again as the child falls to his knees. Divers pulses electrical currents into the boy’s arm, into his shoulder, into his back, and into his leg for 35 seconds. The child screams as the deputies handcuff him behind his back.

Al Letson: Listening to that is so hard. I mean, I have a kid the same age. I just can’t imagine him in this situation with a grownup. This can’t be the way that they’re trained, is it?

Aura Bogado: Well, if Divers actually found cause to arrest the child, he’s supposed to at least try to get him to cooperate. That’s not what happened here. Divers doesn’t employ the Spanish language speakers around him to help him communicate with the boy. And either way, we never see the boy resisting, throwing hands or physically even attempting to stop Divers in any way. In Bexar County, sheriff’s deputies are supposed to try to verbally deescalate a situation before resorting to force. If that doesn’t work, they’re supposed to use their physical strength first before turning to a taser.

Aura Bogado: After the tasing, the boy is bent over breathing heavily and groaning. And he asks a question we’ll hear him ask repeatedly over the next 15 minutes with no answer.

Boy: ¿A dónde [bleep]puta me van a llevar, a la [bleep]verga?

Aura Bogado: Where are you taking me? Where are you taking me? And remember, Al, at this point he’s been in five different ORR shelters in California, Virginia, and Texas, “Dime a dónde me van a llevar,”, he says. Tell me where you’re taking me. Deputy Divers doesn’t answer, instead, his partner, Deputy Schneider, insults him.

Deputy Schneider: El stupido.

Boy: ¡Dime a dónde me van a llevar!

Aura Bogado: El stupido, he calls the boy.

Boy: ¡Dime a dónde me van a llevar, pues! Sólo dime! 

Aura Bogado: After the tasing, Divers picks up the remaining cartridge parts from the bathroom floor and then uses that same bare hand to rip out the taser darts that punctured the boy’s body.

Deputy Divers: I’m not sure where the blood is coming from.

Aura Bogado: A shelter staff member begins telling Deputy Schneider about the boy’s mental health history.

Deputy Schneider: What’s he diagnosed with?

Boy: ¡Dime a dónde me van a llevar!

Shelter staff: Severe depression, ADHD.

Aura Bogado: The staffer lists the various medications the boy is taking, including something for insomnia. It’s striking to me that it’s not until after he’s tased that we hear the deputies ask about the boy’s mental health.

Deputy Divers: We’ll get him in there and we’ll-

Aura Bogado: The deputies walk the boy through the hallway with a hand on his arm. The boy curses at the shelter itself and yells that he is being taken back to Honduras. They walk out into the rain and toward the deputy’s cruiser. The boy gets in the backseat. Schneider stands outside the car and talks to a staff member.

Deputy Schneider: I got to take this darn mask off.

Shelter staff: Go ahead, trust me.

Deputy Schneider: Oh man. I believe in the Lord, Jesus Christ and when it’s my time, it’s my time.

Aura Bogado: And remember we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. A few minutes later, a team of EMTs shows up and asks why the child was tased.

EMT: What was the reason for getting tased?

Deputy Schneider: Fighting, resisting.

Aura Bogado: But that’s not what the video shows. There is no fighting. There is no resisting. The EMTs check the boy out and clear him to be transported. Inside the shelter, Cisneros, the director, tells Divers that the boy allegedly broke placards on the walls, storage bins and two bed frames. But there’s nothing to see, there’s no evidence of destruction. The room is empty.

Deputy Divers: Show me what damage he did.

Ricardo Cisneros: We actually removed a lot of the damaged items to prevent him from hurting himself.

Deputy Divers: Right.

Al Letson: Aura, I have to stop you there. Are they saying they’re worried he’s going to use a broken bed frame to hurt himself?

Aura Bogado: Yeah, and they’re saying it in passing, like it’s no big deal. He’s on a variety of medications. He has trouble sleeping and you can really hear his distress in this next piece of tape, which is from Deputy Schneider’s body cam. Schneider is still standing outside the police cruiser and he’s talking with a staff member about the boy in English while the boy wails in the background.

Deputy Schneider: Even the taser, he was fighting that taser the whole way. 

Boy: ¡No sirvo para nada, mamá!

Deputy Schneider: He had to get zapped a few times.

Boy: ¡No sirvo para nada, madresita! 

Staffer: These guys are young and strong.

Deputy Schneider: This one here, he’s going to be a handful when he gets older, he’s already a handful. He’s 17.

Boy: ¡No sirvo para nada, mamita! ¡Nada! 

Aura Bogado: Schneider can’t even get his age right. The boy is 16 and you hear him here calling for his grandmother. He’s crying. He’s saying, I’m worthless, mama. I’m not worth anything.

Shelter staffer: He’s used to this. That’s why they get used to it. You start getting a delinquent like that, that gets used to the [inaudible]. 

Boy: ¡No! Mamá linda!  

Staffer: They know what to expect. So their body gets used to it after a while.

Al Letson: They are talking about him like he is an animal. He’s young and strong. He’s going to be a handful when he gets older. That’s like something you say about a willful puppy or a willful horse or something. And then the shelter staffer, he’s calling the boy a delinquent. On what basis?

Aura Bogado: On no basis? We have no evidence that this child has ever been arrested before. And the circumstances under which he’s arrested at this shelter have been called into question. Throughout the footage, we hear not only the deputies, but also shelter staffers de-humanize the child, like you said, talking about him as if he’s an animal. Julie Tamez who was the boy’s lead case manager at the time tells Divers that prior to being at this shelter, the boy was at a secure facility.

Julie Tamez: Where they send the gangs and the sicarios, people who kill. He was all the way up there and then they started moving him down.

Deputy Divers: How long has he been here?

Aura Bogado: Secure shelters, Tamez says, are where they send “the gangs and the sicarios, the people who kill,” but there’s no evidence at all that he’s affiliated with a gang or has any criminal background. What we do have evidence of is this boy’s fragile mental state. Earlier, the boy had asked where he’s going, and finally Tamez told him.

Julie Tamez: He wants to know where he’s being taken.

Deputy Divers: He’s going to juvenile.

Julie Tamez: Vas a ir a un centro de detención para menores.

Aura Bogado: A juvenile detention center, she said. Divers is getting ready to head out and Tamez tells him she’s worried that the boy might hurt himself in the cruiser. The rain is really loud here. So it might be hard to hear.

Julie Tamez: Yeah. He might start banging his head against the window.

Deputy Divers: I ain’t worried about it.

Julie Tamez: Apparently when they cross countries without anybody, they feel they know all, so. 

Deputy Divers: Welcome to Texas.

Aura Bogado: I spoke to Tamez for the story and her tone with me on the phone was really a departure from the dismissive tone that we hear in this footage. She was so, so sorry about what happened. And she said that she was shocked that a taser was used and that she would never call 911 again in a similar situation.

Al Letson: Yeah, but that promise is coming a little too late for the kid who was tased. So what happens when he leaves the shelter?

Aura Bogado: Divers leaves the shelter with the boy in the backseat. He turns the music up and for the most part, it’s quiet, but occasionally the boy speaks.

Boy: Me angry, bro

Deputy Divers: You’re angry? I know that.

Boy: Yeah bro… Oh my god.

Aura Bogado: An hour and 40 minutes after he first arrived at the Casa Blanca Shelter, Divers and the boy arrived at juvenile hall. Divers escorts the boy toward a cinder block building. The boy is silent, walking with his head down. Divers presses a button on an intercom, outside a heavy metal door.

Speaker 15: How can I help you?

Deputy Divers: I need to drop one off.

Speaker 15: I’m sorry. You’re dropping off what?

Deputy Divers: A prisoner.

Aura Bogado: This boy entered the country as a refugee seeking asylum, now he’s a prisoner. The boy sighs. You can hear the faint clanking of a freight train in the distance and the wind. Then the door opens and they walk inside.

Al Letson: What do we know about this boy? What’s his story?

Aura Bogado: We haven’t been able to speak with him. It’s nearly impossible for reporters to speak with migrant children in federal custody. But we did get ahold of his grandmother in Honduras. She didn’t want to be recorded, but she told me that when he was 12, he began selling coconut water on the street to help his family get by. She said gangs began hounding him, trying to get them to pay taxes. He was beaten up pretty badly a few times and his money was stolen. She said he was terrified that he’d be killed. And so he decided to flee the country and head north at just 15 years old. He got here before the pandemic and now he’s been in custody for two years.

Al Letson: Where is he now?

Aura Bogado: After he was tased, he was sent back to that secure facility in Virginia. Remember that? And then back to a shelter in Texas and then transferred again to the Shiloh Residential Treatment Center, which our listeners may remember was forcibly dragging children from there. He was sent to a therapeutic type of group home in Washington state. And now he’s back at that Virginia detention center.

Al Letson: So what are the chances that this boy is going to be released from the shelter system?

Aura Bogado: Kids are supposed to be released as soon as possible. In fact, there’s a federal settlement that requires this. Once children turn 18, though, they can be picked up by ICE, often on the morning of their birthday and placed into adult detention. The boy now has advocates who are worried this could happen to him and are working to get him released ahead of his 18th birthday.

Al Letson: I’m curious if you have any idea how this long-term detention has affected him.

Aura Bogado: The boy has been talking to his grandmother the whole time and she told me that he was always pretty sad after coming to the US, but now he cries more on the phone. He’s really scared of being tased again. And she says that he wants to be deported just to get out of the shelter system. But he’s afraid of being sent back to Honduras because he’s afraid he’ll be killed. And since the tasing, he’s also expressed a desire to end his life.

Al Letson: So you and reporter Laura Morel show this tape to an adolescent psychologist, what does she have to say?

Aura Bogado: Yeah, her name is Dr. Daisy Camacho Thompson. She’s a professor at Cal State LA and she was like, no, I absolutely don’t think you need to call a police officer for times when a child can’t soothe themselves.

Daisy Thompson: One thing that could have been helpful is just to take a moment to breathe. So mindfulness meditation. You can have 10 minutes. I’m going to time you. So it’s still structured. It’s still guided by the adult. And then the child would have probably calmed down. I don’t think you needed-

Aura Bogado: She said the tasing was just adding to the trauma the boy’s already experienced. We also wanted to show the video to someone who has the power to do something about it. So we shared it with Congressman Joaquin Castro. He’s from San Antonio.

Congressman Castro: We’ve talked a lot in this country about over-policing in different situations. And this is clearly an example of over-policing with respect to asylum-seeking youth.

Aura Bogado: Castro is also calling for a federal investigation.

Al Letson: What about the Office of Refugee Resettlement? I mean, they’re the ones who actually fund the Casa Blanca Shelter, right?

Aura Bogado: We tried to get them to comment, Al. We offered the agency an opportunity to watch the video, many opportunities to watch the video weeks ahead of the public. We asked them for comment. We tried to reach out to Secretary Xavier Becerra, he leads the department that covers ORR. Nothing. No one from ORR who’s ultimately responsible for the child’s care will talk to us. He was tased in their custody, but they haven’t said a word about it.

Al Letson: What about the deputy sheriff who tased the child? From what you know, does the Sheriff’s office think he actually did something wrong?

Aura Bogado: It’s hard to say with certainty right now. What’s clear is that they didn’t know that this tasing even happened. It wasn’t until we provided more details, like the address of the shelter, the day, the deputy’s name, that the Sheriff’s office actually thanked us for providing this information and told us that they would be launching an internal affairs complaint. In the interim, Divers has been placed on administrative leave and his partner, Deputy Schneider retired from the force in March.

Al Letson: Were you able to talk to the deputy? How does he explain what happened?

Aura Bogado: Well, we called and left messages, but he never responded. We do know that he was supposed to fill out a taser deployment form to explain what happened. We’ve asked the Sheriff’s Department for it, but in June, the Bexar County District Attorney sent a letter to the Texas Attorney General to bar the disclosure of any more documents related to this incident. And a member of our legal team, Alexandra Gutierrez, she sent the Attorney General of Texas, a letter objecting to the DA’s reasoning and explaining to the Attorney General why the records should be released under Texas law.

Aura Bogado: And one more big point I really want to make here, Al, they’re not only trying to withhold additional records from us, but they’ve asked us to destroy the video that’s at the center of this story. You know, it’s one thing to read that a child got tased, but it’s really another thing to watch it and to hear it frame by frame. And we’re not in the business of destroying records, we’re in the business of publishing and letting the truth be known.

Al Letson: Thank you, Aura.

Aura Bogado: Thanks, Al.

Al Letson: That was Reveal’s Aura Bogado. Our story was produced by Emily Guerin. This isn’t the only video that Aura and Laura uncovered. Next on Reveal, staffers call 911 when there is no emergency.

911: It was staff, one of the minors, a 17 year old, pushed a staff.

Al Letson: This is Reveal.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal, I’m Al Letson. Before the break, we heard Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas say young people who come to the US seeking asylum are being over-policed. It’s happening at shelters where the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, places kids while the government looks for a family member or a sponsor to take them in. Reveal’s Aura Bogado and Laura Morel have uncovered several cases where a call to police resulted in severe consequences for kids. Laura joins me now with more.

Al Letson: Hey Laura.

Laura Morel: Hey Al.

Al Letson: Okay. So first of all, how many kids are ending up in police custody?

Laura Morel: So we found that since 2014, at least 84 children held at shelters were turned over to local law enforcement. And we’ve also learned that most of these arrests happened in two counties in Texas. At one shelter alone, there were seven arrests that we found in the span of a single month, including one kid who was just 12 years old.

Al Letson: How did you and Aura find this out?

Laura Morel: We had to sue the federal government. We got 300,000 records, which gave us information on every migrant child in ORR custody for a period of six years. And in those records, we found this pattern of arrests at shelters. And so we decided to file public records requests to learn more about these individual cases, which is how we got 911 call recordings for shelters in Brownsville, Texas.

911: Hello, Brownsville 911.

Laura Morel: One call was about two kids getting into a fight and one of them ended up getting a black eye.

911: Do you need an ambulance?

Speaker 21: No, no. We have a medical department here.

Laura Morel: In another incident, a boy acted out because he was upset that he wasn’t going to go on an outing.

Speaker 22: One of the minors[inaudible], a 17-year old, pushed a staff.

Laura Morel: And a third one, two boys had gotten in a fight earlier that day.

Speaker 22: I’m sorry?

911: We’ll send someone around.

Speaker 22: You’re going to send someone?

911: Yes, ma’am.

Laura Morel: You can hear that she’s surprised that police are actually going to come to the shelter.

Speaker 22: I thought I was just supposed to report it.

911: To report it, ma’am, you can’t report it over the phone.

Speaker 22: I can’t report it over the phone?

911: No, ma’am. We can’t take reports.

Speaker 22: Can you give me one minute so I can speak to my supervisor?

911: Sure.

Laura Morel: In this incident, no one was even injured, but we found out through the police report that the shelter’s management actually told staff, they had to press charges and police ended up arresting this boy. In these 911 calls, we’re starting to hear how kids involved in even minor incidents can sometimes end up in police custody. But the case that I really want to talk about happens on November 10th, 2018. So Brownsville police officers are called to a shelter, Casa Padre and it’s run by this nonprofit Southwest Key programs. And it’s actually one of the largest shelters in the United States. It actually used to be a Walmart.

911 Operator: [inaudible], how can I help you?

Speaker 24: Yes, ma’am, I was giving you a call [inaudible] here in Brownsville, Texas. I was giving you a call because earlier we had an incident with-

Laura Morel: And this is a case that’s reported as an assault and which would make you think that it’s an urgent matter, but instead they’re calling 911 about three hours later. Now, keep in mind, Al, that the Office of Refugee Resettlement policy about this is really clear that shelters should only call 911 for true emergencies like a child who’s run away from a shelter or who needs to be hospitalized or in the event of a child’s death. So calling hours after an incident happens, doesn’t really seem like an emergency.

911 Operator: When this incident occurred, did you call it in?

Speaker 24: No ma’am.

911 Operator: So it was never called in?

Speaker 24: No, ma’am. This is the first time that we’re calling in.

Laura Morel: So officers get there and they’re greeted at the entrance by the shelter’s assistant program director. This guy named Sergio[foreign language] Rodriguez.

Speaker 25: Can I wait for my partner to show up?

Mr. Rodriguez: Oh yeah. [inaudible]

Laura Morel: This is audio from the officer’s body cameras. Rodriguez tells the two officers who arrived that around 12 o’clock that day there was an altercation between two 17-year old boys. And here you can hear that there’s this whole review process around the decision to call the police.

Mr. Rodriguez: We sent a video up to our supervisors and then they send it up to their supervisors to see if we’re going to end up being called the PD. And then so they merited it that yes, we are going to be calling PD. So that’s why I had the advice. That’s why it took a little while. Okay. We stopped it immediately.

Laura Morel: But actually, Al, according to a police report, the boy just walks away on his own. Rodriguez shows the officers video of what happened. It’s blurry, but you can see that one boy grabs another boy from behind as they pass each other in a hallway.

Speaker 24: So he’s telling him something and then he just starts choking him right there. And then the kid tries to get away.

Speaker 25: It didn’t even last long.

Speaker 24: No, it was about five seconds.

Laura Morel: They finished watching the video and while there’s some confusion over exactly what happens, we know that no one got hurt and the whole thing was over in just a few seconds. Rodriguez goes to get the kids. And meanwhile, these officers are standing in the lobby now, and they’re sort of making a plan to file charges against one of the kids.

Speaker 25: It’s going to be an assault.

Speaker 27: Yeah, yeah, but he said it was choking, but it just looks like he grabs him across the chest. [inaudible]

Laura Morel: The shelter staff bring out the boy who was grabbed and he comes into the lobby. He sits on the couch and one of the officers walks over to him and starts asking him questions. We’re bleeping out names because these boys were minors at the time.

Officer:  Y luego, algo pasó en la clase con ____

Laura Morel: Did anything happen in class with the other kid before he grabbed you?

Kid: No, nada.

Laura Morel: And the boy says no. And then the officer says-

Speaker 27: Ya miré el video que me enseñó Rodriguez…

Laura Morel: I’ve seen the video.

Officer: …saliste de la clase ¿y luego qué pasó? 

Kid: Bueno, es que yo fui con un mister a…

Laura Morel: He asked him, you got out of class and then what?

Officer: Te horcó o no más puso la mano aquí?

Laura Morel: Did he choke you? And did it hurt? And he starts to answer the officer’s questions about what happened. 

Kid:  Bueno, sólo me dolió pero… 

Officer: Ok, so… 

Laura Morel: And ultimately he does say yes, he choked me. Yes, it hurt. Yes, I want to press charges.

Al Letson: And do they talk to the other kid?

Laura Morel: They do, but it’s really short. He gives his side of the story and says that he was reacting to the other boy insulting him. And then there’s this exchange between him and one of the officers. And the officer tells him, if somebody insults you-

Officer 2: Sí entiendes que cuando te insultan no puedes estar pegándole a la gente ¿verdad?

Laura Morel: You can’t hit them.

Officer 2: No más son palabras. Ya si te pegan y te defiendes es otra cosa…

Laura Morel: If they hit you, that’s one thing because it’s self-defense.

Officer 2: …alguien te dice algo y tú les pegas, es un asalto. 

Laura Morel: But if they say something to you and you hit them, that’s considered assault.

Officer 2: Sí me entiendes?

Kid: ¡¿Asalto?!

Al Letson: So wait, they are arresting him for assault?

Laura Morel: Yeah. He was taken aback by it too. He sort of whispers back, assault and it’s hard to hear him, but you can tell that he has this moment where it registers for him what’s going on. And remember, he doesn’t have a parent or adult to really advocate for him.

Laura Morel: And before the officers leave, they’re looking through their paperwork, talking with the shelter staff, and there’s this confusion about who has authority over the 17-year old.

Speaker 27: Do you guys have like a, sort of a power of attorney over the kids?

Speaker 24: Power of attorney?

Speaker 27: Sort of, kind of like that because since he’s 17, he’s an adult already for us. So, I mean, once we arrested him, he’s going to want, if he’s placed under arrest, we’re going to take him to city jail. He’s 17. But since he’s 17, I don’t know if you guys still have rights over him because I don’t know how that works.

Laura Morel: And the answer isn’t that clear. I mean, it’s really the federal government, right, that has authority to move these kids around. But the government contracts with providers to take care of them, so the officer’s place the 17-year old in handcuffs and they take him out to the squad car.

Speaker 27: I got to go with assault, Class A because he told me that, I see in the video where he kind of like grabs him, puts more force on over here. I asked him if he restricted his breathing. He said, no, it was just the pain. So assault, Class A. He’s 17, he’s going to go to city jail. I don’t know what happens to him. You guys, if you take custody back or [crosstalk]. They’re going to give us a call back.

Laura Morel: So what’s striking to me about this last conversation is that nobody’s really asking, what does this mean for this kid? For his immigration case? He’s facing a misdemeanor charge and he’s being booked into a jail where he’s going to be placed with adults that are much older than him.

Al Letson: What stands out for me is that things like this happen all the time. If you were anywhere else, this might not turn into such a big deal. I mean, the kids might resolve it by either going their separate ways or apologizing and shaking hands, who knows. But because the police were called into this shelter, the consequences are just so much higher.

Laura Morel: Yeah, that’s true. And in this case, the consequences are really starting to settle in for this boy.

Kid: ¿Es un asalto? 

Officer: Es algo, es algo chico….

Laura Morel: He wants to know more about this assault charge. And the officer tells him, it’s not really a serious charge, that it could have been a lot worse if he’d actually hurt the other boy. And then the boy says to the officer, can I ask you a question?

Kid: Pregunta. ¿Le hago una pregunta?

Officer:  Dígame.

Laura Morel: How long will I be in jail?

Kid: Cuánto me van a tener allí?

Officer: Parece que no más una noche.

Laura Morel: And the officer says probably just one night. But the teenager asked him again, are you sure? And the officer tells him, he’s not sure.

KId: ¿Seguro?

Officer:  Es lo que no sé, no estoy seguro pero normalmente el cargo que tienes té, normalmente es una noche. Pero todavía no sé.

Kid: Entiendo.

Officer: Órale. 

Al Letson: And did he spend just one night in jail?

Laura Morel: No, he was booked into the jail. He was issued a $2,000 bond and eventually he ended up pleading guilty to this assault charge and he spent close to three months in jail. And what we know from jail records and court records is that ICE immediately, after he’s booked into the jail, they placed a hold on him. And by the time he’s released, this boy had already turned 18. Records we have also show that ICE picked him up and he was ordered deported to Honduras by an immigration judge that August. So because of this altercation that lasted a few seconds, this boy goes from being considered an unaccompanied child to being deemed a criminal in the eyes of the US government.

Al Letson: That’s just mind-blowing. All of this set off by like a conflict that lasted seconds in a hallway. And now this kid has been deported and looked at, as you say, as a criminal.

Laura Morel: Yeah, Al, and we asked everyone involved in this case for an interview. ORR wouldn’t talk to us. Southwest Key sent us a written statement that says they train their staff to deescalate difficult situations and that staff members respect the authority of officers called the shelters. But they didn’t answer my questions about why they called police to begin with. The Brownsville Police Department were the only ones who agreed to speak about the case. Their spokesperson told me that the safety of the victim came first and since the victim said he felt pain, that was enough for an assault charge. When I told them about the outcome of this teen’s case, he acknowledged to me that this chain of events was unfortunate.

Al Letson: So Laura, what do these arrests do to a child’s chance of getting asylum? I mean, this kid who likely came to the US for protection, ends up going to jail, gets deported all because of a minor fight. I mean, I don’t even want to call it a fight because it really wasn’t that. But what does that mean for other kids who might be in the same situation?

Laura Morel: Well, this is the kind of thing that could follow a child all the way through the immigration system. This is Miriam Abaya from a group called First Focus on Children, which advocates for federal policies that support families.

Miriam Abaya: Typically, when incidences like this occur in ORR custody, they’re put into a child’s ORR file.

Laura Morel: She told me that ORR has to notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement whenever a child’s gets arrested. And in certain cases, that means that the government could use the arrest to argue against a child’s asylum claim.

Al Letson: And did she have any insight about what this pattern of getting the police involved can tell us about how ORR manages shelters for migrant youth?

Laura Morel: Yeah. She said that from her perspective, it says a lot about the way that shelters like Casa Padre are structured.

Miriam Abaya: Children are subject to a really regimented routine. There’s not a lot of flexibility. The staff that work there are shift workers so they come in every few hours and there’s no personal relationship built with between the child and an adult.

Laura Morel: And Al, these are teens in a new country alone, and often they don’t really have a lot of information about how long they’ll be there or whether the government has found their family members. And that can really cause a lot of trauma and anxiety for these kids, so it’s not surprising that they might act out. But shelter providers should be equipped to care for these kids. They get federal funding, Southwest Key alone gets hundreds of millions of dollars from the government to run its shelters. And that’s why Miriam and others that I spoke to said that shelter providers should be training their staff to handle these situations without having to call 911.

Al Letson: Laura, thanks so much. That was Reveal’s Laura Morel. Our story was produced by Rowaen Moore Geretyarrity. When we come back, we’ll hear about what’s happened since Laura and Aura’s first story was published. We’ll also talk about the Biden administration and what’s changed.

Aura Bogado: Under Biden, we found it a lot harder to get any information.

Al Letson: You’re listening to Reveal from the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Speaker 1: Reveal is brought to you by Progressive. Have you tried the name your price tool yet? It works just the way it sounds. You tell Progressive how much you want to pay for car insurance and they’ll show you coverage options that fit your budget. It’s easy to start a quote, and you’ll be able to find a rate that works for you. It’s just one of the many ways you can save with Progressive. Get your quote today at progressive.com and see why four out of five new auto customers recommend Progressive. Progressive Casualty Insurance Company and affiliates. Price and coverage match limited by state law.

Amy Mostafa: I’m Amy Mostafa, the production manager here at Reveal. Reveal is a nonprofit news organization. And we rely on support from listeners. Like you become a member by texting the word reveal to 474747. Standard data rates apply. And you can text stop at any time. Again, text reveal to 474747. Thank you.

Al Letson: From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. We spent the last hour giving you a rare glimpse inside government shelters for refugee kids. And reporters, Laura Morel and Aura Bogado are both here to talk with me now about their reporting. So you two have turned up dozens of cases of police being called into shelters where kids who come here seeking asylum are criminalized by the system. Who’s responsible here?

Laura MorelAura Bogado: I think there are so many institutions and agencies that overlap in this situation. First of all, you have the administration’s right, the Obama administration, the Trump administration, and now there’s the Biden administration, who I think it’s incumbent upon them to investigate what happened to these kids. And then you have this refugee agency, ORR, that oversees this huge network of shelters, and then those shelters are run by private contractors. And then on top of all of that, you have this added layer of local law enforcement who have the discretion at the end of the day to decide who they’re arresting or not.

Al Letson: Aura, you’ve been reporting on the treatment of migrant kids for more than a decade across three administrations. And I know your reporting has highlighted abuse and mistreatment in all of them. But I’m curious about what’s changed during that time from Obama to Trump and now Biden.

Aura Bogado: Frankly, for me as a reporter, I think a lot of the policies and practices that result in what children experience from the moment they arrive at the border, it’s kind of cyclical. It happens over and over and over again. Al, the last time that I was talking to you on air, it was about a child who’d been in custody for seven years. She had been separated from her family at the border when she was just a kid, she was just 10 years old and that was under Obama. And she remained bouncing around from shelter to shelter through two different administrations for seven years. And then finally just pleaded to be deported back to Honduras, and that’s a lot of what happens. It’s not like, oh, if you’re a child and you’re in custody, suddenly there’s a new president and you’re out in the world, that’s not at all what happens. I think it’s better to understand it as a system, which can be swayed and can ultimately be changed by an administration should that administration really take that challenge on.

Al Letson: When President Biden was running for office, he promised really big changes. Have we seen any of those changes come into effect?

Laura Morel: Biden ran on this idea that he was going to create this humane immigration system and Aura and I have been noticing some changes in some of the policies left behind by Trump. There’s also been changes in the use of language, more humane language. Biden ordered immigration agencies to stop using terms like alien or illegal alien from their communications with the public and the press, as well as their internal documents. And I actually still have some copies of older press releases and fact sheets from the Trump administration where you would see the term unaccompanied alien children so that is another difference that we’re seeing.

Aura Bogado: Yeah. And there have been some changes to the policy and some material changes for the kids that are seeking asylum, but the conditions that they’re being placed in are subpar to say the least. And so the top administrators change, but those day-to-day managers, the people that are really running this bureaucracy and the people that are on the ground, that pretty much stays the same. And I think it’s also worth noting, this might be really surprising, it feels surprising to me. Under Biden, we found it a lot harder to get any information out of ORR, out of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. At least during the Trump administration, we’d have these emails back and forth. They never agreed to an interview on tape, but we could at least communicate with them.

Al Letson: The Trump administration was unusually open and candid about its harsh treatment of migrant children. Out of the policies that Trump put into place, what’s had a lasting impact?

Laura Morel: I think, for sure, family separation will always be the biggest piece of Trump’s legacy on immigration. And just to remind people of what happened and what it means, Aura and I both reported on this back in the spring of 2018 when the Trump administration started its what they called the zero-tolerance policy. And what that meant was that essentially asylum seekers, immigrants coming to the border, they would be criminally prosecuted. So parents who came with their children, the parents would be put in adult detention and the children would be separated from them and placed within the shelter system. During this period, I think it was between April and June, around 3000 children were separated from their parents. And to this day, Al, some of these children are still separated from their parents. In many cases because the parents were deported while their children remain here in the US.

Al Letson: So the Biden administration is still responding to the fallout from that policy. What else does the new administration need to address?

Aura Bogado: Well, Biden did start letting migrant children who are seeking asylum into the system. He made a strong humanitarian case for that, and that was something that was expected. And I think that that’s a good thing. These are children that are fleeing horrific conditions, sometimes conditions that were partially made by the United States in those countries through different civil wars and climate change and all kinds of programs. So that’s important, but I don’t think that this administration properly prepared for the amount of children that were going to come in. I think any reporter, any immigration reporter could tell you, oh yeah, a whole bunch of kids are going to come this year and the Biden ministration didn’t prepare properly for that. And so they’re putting children in soft-sided tents by the hundreds on military bases or in a fair ground or in a convention center.

Aura Bogado: Those are not places that are licensed to hold children therefore they are not inspected by the state so we don’t even have that level of oversight and no one should be living like that. And yet, by the most recent count, we’ve got about 15,000 migrant children in the custody of the federal government and that doesn’t have to be the case.

Al Letson: So what do we not know yet? I mean, what are the both of you watching for?

Aura Bogado: This administration I think is a little more responsive to public pressure. For me, as a reporter, I’m just trying to get the public to care about migrant kids, again, as little human beings that deserve a basic level of respect and care. For President Biden, he certainly cared for that population while he was campaigning. I think he has shown some basic good faith efforts. It does mean something that children are being allowed in, but you also got to make account in terms of the way that kids are being cared for. And so I think we’re looking out for signals that there is an actual intent to change the system as it exists, to hire competent caretakers within these shelters, to improve their reunification rates, and how fast kids are discharged to sponsors. I think we’ll get a clearer picture in the coming years, but that’s what I’m keeping an eye out for.

Laura Morel: And I’ll just add specifically to this one case that we’ve been following of a migrant child’s being tased. I think for sure we’ll be following on that internal affairs investigation to see what else it can shed a light on in terms of what happened to that child that day and whether the Sheriff’s office takes any sort of responsibility for it. We’ll be interested to know if there is an Inspector General investigation that reviews this as well. And I think we are still hopeful that perhaps the Office of Refugee Resettlement and HHS will finally look into what we’re reporting on and talk to us about what’s happening and what changes, if any, they’re making to make sure that this never happens again.

Al Letson: Aura and Laura, thank you so much for your work on this story.

Aura Bogado: Thanks, Al.

Laura Morel: Thanks, Al.

Al Letson: Our lead producer for this week’s show is Ike Sriskandarajah. Cynthia Rodriguez and Casey Mineor edited the show. Andy Donoahue is our digital editor. Thanks to Patrick Michaels, Adrianna Heldiz [inaudible], Alexandra Gutierrez, David Rodriguez, and Melissa Lewis for their help with this reporting. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy, the great, Mostafa. Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, Arruda. They helped this week from Steven Rascóon and Claire Mullen [inaudible]. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirkerck. Our interim CEO is Annie Chabel. Sumi Aggarwal is our interim editor in chief and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comearado Lightning.

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the In As Much Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember there is always more to the story.

Speaker 1: Support for Reveal comes from Odoo. Meet Dan. Dan built a kick-ass bike company, but his old software made it impossible to keep up with demand. It took so much time just to make things work, it was sucking the life out of him, then he found Odoo. Odoo automated his business by integrating inventory, manufacturing, accounting, and marketing. Now he can meet the demand and grow even faster with the e-commerce app. Thanks to ODU, Dan doubled his revenue and can focus on what matters. Go to odoo.com/reveal to start a free trial. That’s O-D-O-O.com/reveal.

Speaker 1: From PRX.