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Migrant Justice: 'I'm going to tase this kid': Government shelters are turning refugee children over to police

*Thank you to Reveal News, Aura Bogado and Laura C. Morel for the article*

When Bexar County Sheriff’s Deputy Patrick Divers pulled into the shelter for migrant children, a few staff members waited outside to greet him. They gave him the basics: There was a 16-year-old boy inside. He hadn’t wanted to go to class that day. He’d broken some stuff and was “super aggressive.” The boy had anger issues, Divers was told. 

“Well, obviously,” he scoffed before entering the building. 

As Divers was led to the boy, he didn’t ask many questions. He eventually arrived to find the child sitting in a bathroom, yelling in Spanish to the facility’s staffers. 

“If they’re going to take me, let’s just fucking get it over with,” the child yelled over and over again, according to Divers’ body camera footage. 

Ricardo Cisneros, the interim director of the Southwest Key Casa Blanca shelter in San Antonio, repeatedly gave the teen his word that the police wouldn’t touch him or take him anywhere. They just wanted the boy to come out. The boy sat motionless and didn’t touch anyone. 

Divers didn’t request evidence of the child’s alleged wrongdoing at the time, according to the footage. He did ask staff whether they wanted to press charges. After Cisneros said yes, the deputy shared his plan with the staff members: He would wait for his partner to arrive. “As soon as they get here, we’ll take care of this,” he said. 

The boy repeatedly asked what they were going to do with him. 

He was a refugee, an asylum seeker in the country without his parents and in the custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. The previous year, he’d fled a gang that had beaten him and, his family says, threatened his life in Honduras. By that afternoon in May 2020, the teen had already spent nine months bouncing around five refugee agency-sponsored shelters from California to Virginia and Texas; he’d only been at this shelter for a week. Like so many other teenagers across the United States, he’d decided on this day that he didn’t want to attend class. Except he now faced a sheriff’s deputy looming over him.

After a seven-minute wait, Divers’ partner, Deputy Harold Schneider, showed up. 

“Ready? I’m going to tase this kid,” Divers said in English.

The deputy had repeatedly been told that the child, who was sitting on the bathroom’s toilet seat cover, understood little English. He was surrounded by bilingual staff members who could interpret, but they stepped aside when Divers drew his weapon. He did not tell the boy that he was under arrest. He ordered the teen in English to stand up and turn around. The child stood up; he was adjusting the drawstring on his pants when Divers shot him with his Taser.

The child showed no signs of fighting back or resisting arrest. Divers then repeatedly pulsed the weapon on the child’s torso and thighs. In all, the 16-year-old experienced 35 seconds of electric current running through his body, rendering him immobile. Divers’ partner eventually cuffed the teen, who was dripping blood; it’s unclear what caused the bleeding.

After picking him up, Schneider chose a nickname for the refugee child, who’d just lost voluntary control of his muscles and who was screaming in pain and agony.

“El Stupido,” he said.

When migrant children enter the United States without their parents and end up in U.S. government custody, either after presenting themselves at a port of entry or after being picked up by the Border Patrol, they’re supposed to be taken care of by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. 

Contrary to a lot of popular assumptions, the children aren’t generally detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The refugee agency, ORR, is a separate agency and is subject to a court decree that’s designed to safeguard migrant children from neglect and abuse. The decree, called the Flores settlement, was crafted in response to a class-action lawsuit representing children fleeing violence in El Salvador in the 1980s who were strip searched, handcuffed and denied release to their families by the federal government. The settlement, which the Trump administration unsuccessfully tried to end, sets guidelines for how long and under what conditions the U.S. government can detain migrant children without their parents. 

To care for the tens of thousands of children who pass through its custody each year, ORR finances a network of about 100 privately run shelters across the country. 

An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found that a number of the government’s shelters have been turning to police to manage the sort of behavior that could be expected of children, in particular isolated refugee children. Over the last six years, shelters have discharged at least 84 children, from ages 11 to 17, to local law enforcement, according to data Reveal obtained after suing the federal government. 

Local law enforcement and courts released records for 19 of those children. An examination of more than 200 pages of records, nearly four hours of body camera footage and half a dozen 911 call recordings shows that many of the children were turned over for arrest after they allegedly fought, damaged property or had mental health challenges. Most children were processed for misdemeanors; one in Washington state was arrested for a felony, but prosecutors didn’t pursue the charge. 

In April 2018, for example, police in Houston were called to a Southwest Key shelter after a 16-year-old allegedly made a suicidal threat. According to police records, officers took him into custody. The child had spent more than seven months in four different shelters.  

Two shelter operators, Southwest Key Programs and BCFS, account for three-fourths of all the cases in which migrant children were turned over to law enforcement, the records show. And the incidents overwhelmingly stem from two counties in Texas, Bexar and Cameron.

Over a one-month span in the summer of 2019, federal records indicate seven children, including a 12-year-old, were arrested from a single shelter in San Antonio run by BCFS, a nonprofit that received more than $186 million from federal grants for the care of migrant children last year. Reveal obtained local law enforcement records for four of the cases involving 17-year-olds; all four were charged with misdemeanor offenses for allegedly hitting staff or peers or, in one case, breaking a television and a chandelier. 

In one case, no injuries were reported. Another case alleging bodily injury was later dismissed for lack of evidence. A third resulted in a misdemeanor conviction for bodily injury to another child. The child who was hurt in that case was arrested for misdemeanor assault a few days later in a separate incident and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. He was sentenced to serve 28 days. 

At least 10 migrant youth were charged as adults in Texas, where the criminal justice system treats 17-year-olds as adults.

In 2018, police in Brownsville, Texas, arrested several 17-year-olds held at Southwest Key shelters Casa El Presidente and Casa Padre on misdemeanor assault charges. One was convicted of pushing a worker twice on the shoulder, and a second youth was accused of punching another child who turned off the lights in a classroom, records show.

Another was accused of wrapping his arm around another teen’s neck for a few moments before walking away, a police report states. Even though the alleged victim did not have injuries to his neck, shelter workers called the police. According to the report, the assistant program director told one of the two responding officers that his supervisors advised him to call the police.

Officers booked the teen into the city jail. Court records in his case show he was charged with class A misdemeanor assault, which is punishable by up to a $4,000 fine and up to a year of imprisonment. The teen pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 120 days in county jail.

Some calls alleged more serious behaviors. 

At the Selma Carson Home in Washington state, police were called after a 17-year-old was accused of grabbing another boy’s neck at night while in his bed and threatening to kill him in 2018. According to records, the child told police that he attacked his roommate for exposing his penis; police noted the victim had “a small mark” on his neck from the attack. The child was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor assault and a felony count for making a threat, but prosecutors ultimately declined to bring charges. 

But a number of current and former shelter workers and immigration advocates said staffers should be able to handle situations in which children have simple fights or break things because they don’t want to go to class. Children can be separated, for example, or a child can be transferred to a different shelter that’s more equipped to handle a child’s needs.

Claudia Valenzuela, an attorney with the nonprofit legal service provider Immigrant Legal Defense, said Southwest Key staffers did not need to call the police on the 16-year-old boy in San Antonio.

“There was no appreciation of the circumstances of this young man,” she said after Reveal showed her the video. “I’m kind of speechless at the fact that they were the ones that decided to press charges, which triggered the tasering.” 

Such an arrest could make it more difficult for a child to get a visa or be released to live with a family member or friend, she said.

Reveal showed the video to U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat who represents San Antonio. He called what happened horrendous. 

“Here you have a young man who’s experienced incredible trauma,” Castro said. “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.” 

Castro told Reveal that he’ll be asking the federal refugee agency to review what occurred and evaluate Southwest Key Casa Blanca and its staffers’ training. 

Neither Southwest Key nor BCFS would answer Reveal’s questions about the police calls. In a statement, Southwest Key spokesperson Kasey El-Chayeb said staff receive crisis intervention training and contact law enforcement only if their de-escalation techniques are not effective or if children present a danger to themselves or others. “We understand that we provide care to young people who have suffered various traumas while coming to this country as unaccompanied minors,” El-Chayeb said.  

The refugee agency, now under the purview of President Joe Biden, would not answer questions about the police transfers, saying it doesn’t respond to “anonymous allegations.” Xavier Becerra, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the refugee agency, issued an identical statement. 

Reveal’s reporting is not based on anonymous allegations. The data – 266,000 records, one for every child who’s made their way through the refugee agency’s system from late 2014 to late 2020 – were obtained directly from ORR through litigation; the bodycam video was obtained under the Texas state records law directly from the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. Even after Reveal made that clear, ORR declined to view video evidence of tasing in one of its shelters. 

The boy in that video was arrested on a charge of criminal mischief. Officials in Bexar County won’t disclose whether the boy was charged with a crime and, if he was, whether he was found guilty. When Reveal requested to interview Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar about the incident, his spokesperson said she was unaware of the case.

“I have checked on my end to see if there was any recent incident involving our deputies using a taser on a migrant child,” Adelina Simpson wrote in an email, “and have not been able to find any information.” 

When provided more detailed information about the case, including the shelter’s address and the names of the deputies who were involved, Change Management Specialist Sandra Altamirano-Pickell thanked Reveal for making the department aware of the incident and said the department would launch an internal affairs investigation.

The following day, Sgt. Abraham Abraham, an open records officer at the department, called a Reveal reporter and requested that Reveal destroy the video, saying he should not have turned it over in response to a public records request because it involves a minor.
Reveal will not destroy the video. There is a strong public interest in its airing. The child’s grandmother told Reveal that she wants the video to be published so the public knows what can happen in shelters for migrant children in the United States.

When the boy was 12, he began helping his family get by, selling coconut water on the street in Honduras. Reached by phone from Honduras, his grandmother – who raised him – recalled how soon after he began working, he was hounded by a local gang to pay a tax on the little money he made. Threats against him grew more serious, and, she said, he was brutally beaten for all of his money on a few occasions.

Terrified for his life, he eventually decided to do what thousands of Central American children do each year: He made his way north. He was 15 years old. 

Reveal is not naming the grandmother out of concern for her safety and is not naming the boy because he’s a juvenile. 

He eventually arrived in the United States, and it’s unclear how he ended up in federal custody. Typically, migrants either present themselves as asylum seekers at a port of entry or are picked up by Border Patrol while attempting to cross without authorization. The government then began shuttling him from shelter to shelter across the country.

It first put him in a shelter in Fullerton, California. Two weeks later, it moved him to a more restrictive facility for children about an hour north of San Francisco. There, he turned 16. Then the government sent him to Virginia, to one shelter in San Antonio and then to the Southwest Key Casa Blanca shelter across town. Children are moved for a variety of reasons, without judicial oversight. Some children are moved when a shelter reaches maximum capacity; others are sent to more restrictive facilities because of how they behave or the support they are deemed to need.

Nine months, five facilities, three states and one birthday. 

The government’s migrant shelter system isn’t designed for this kind of prolonged stay, depriving children of the emotional and educational support they need in the long term. Indeed, the Flores settlement calls for the government to “release a minor from its custody without unnecessary delay.” Yet as Reveal’s ongoing investigation into how detention changes migrant children found last year, nearly 1 in 10 migrant children spent more than 100 days in custody over the last six years. Nearly 1,000 spent more than a year in custody.

Persistently moving around the country, having to adjust to a new setting with new rules and new people, stressed out the boy and made him anxious, said his grandmother, who’s still in contact with the child through weekly phone calls. Before his detention, she said, he was a relatively carefree kid. 

She said she noticed he was anxious when they talked by phone after he arrived at his first shelter. The anxiety, she said, grew into depression with time.

It was the tasing, however, that drastically changed her grandson, she said.

After he was tased, she said he cried a lot more on their weekly phone calls and has expressed a desire to end his life. He’s terrified of being tased again. She said he wants to seek deportation to escape the shelter but remains terrified of the death threats that motivated him to flee Honduras originally. 

While she was aware that her grandson was tased, the grandmother wasn’t aware that there was video footage. She said that what happened was deeply unjust and that the people and agencies responsible for what occurred should be held accountable. 

“You don’t know how much this has hurt my heart,” she said.

Records from the refugee agency reviewed by Reveal show that a day or two after his arrest in Bexar County, the 16-year-old boy was transferred for a second stint at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Virginia.

After four months in Virginia, the child was transferred back to Texas – this time to a different shelter run by Southwest Key, Casa Montezuma in Harris County. He turned 17 years old there, his second birthday in custody. Two months later, he was sent to the Shiloh Treatment Center outside Houston, which has a history of drugging children without parental consent. He was there for a few months before being transferred to another shelter in Washington state. 

Once Southwest Key’s staffers called police, they put the child’s fate in the hands of Bexar County deputies. He had been a child seeking protection from violence, someone afforded special protections under federal law. Then he became a criminal suspect turned over to law enforcement.

Even then, deputies are bound by rules about when and how they can use force against a suspect. 

According to the department’s use-of-force policy, officers should use the minimum amount of force required to bring any incident under control. The handbook explains that “(g)enerally, the use of force against another is not justified in response to verbal provocation alone.” If the officer determines the need for force, the policy manual states that “an officer will use verbal persuasion first,” followed by a physical hold. Deploying a Taser would be the next step before employing deadly force.

The body camera video does not show the boy provoking the deputies verbally. It doesn’t show Deputy Patrick Divers attempting verbal persuasion. Divers was told the boy spoke Spanish, but he issued commands in English. When Divers demanded that the child stand up, the child did so, while appearing to tighten the drawstring on his pants. It’s then that Divers deploys his Taser. In two bodycam videos reviewed by Reveal, neither deputy read the child his Miranda rights following his arrest. 

The video shows that after the child is handcuffed, led out of the shelter and placed in the back of the squad car, Divers returns to the shelter with Ricardo Cisneros, the shelter’s interim director, to assess the damage. Cisneros explains that the child broke two bed frames and three plastic bins, estimating a total of about $500 worth of damage. But the alleged evidence was removed because, according to Cisneros, they were “things (the teen) can use for self-harm.” 

The video doesn’t show Divers observing the bed frames or plastic bins the child was accused of destroying. Divers and his partner, Schneider, couldn’t be reached for comment. At one point in the footage, Divers mentions he worked at a Texas Key facility – Southwest Key’s former name – briefly before he joined law enforcement. Personnel records indicate Divers is a 27-year veteran of the force; Schneider retired in late March after 30 years as a Bexar County deputy.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement’s policies indicate that care providers must call 911 for true emergencies, like immediate dangers that would require hospitalization, situations in which a child has run away or in the event of a child’s death. The 16-year-old who was tased last year appeared to be experiencing emotional distress, but staff members on the video don’t accuse him of threatening or striking anyone.

Congressman Joaquin Castro said the agency needs to take the care of migrant children, and the trauma they’re facing, more seriously. With Biden now in the White House, he said federal departments charged with the custody of migrants of all ages have an opportunity to alter the way asylum seekers are treated. 

“If we get through these next few years of the Biden administration and nothing has structurally changed – I don’t mean, like, little things on the edges – structurally changed about how we do this, then that will have been a tragic missed opportunity,” he said.

Police arrested 31 migrant children at shelters run by BCFS, which has operated more than a dozen federally funded migrant children shelters in Texas and California, over the six-year period, records from the refugee agency show.

In a statement, a BCFS spokesperson said: “The safety and well-being of both those in our care and our employees is a top priority. BCFS Health and Human Services follows all protocols and policies as outlined by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Law enforcement is called whenever incidents of violence occur or as deemed necessary.”

Southwest Key, the nation’s largest shelter network for migrant children, accounted for the largest number of arrests. At least 36 children in Southwest Key’s care were turned over to local law enforcement. 

Southwest Key, which has run approximately 30 shelters in Texas, Arizona and California, declined to discuss the boy’s Taser incident, claiming that doing so would violate the privacy of children in its care.

“When law enforcement is present, we respect their authority and judgement on how to handle the situation and what approach officers take,” wrote spokesperson Kasey El-Chayeb. “The decision on whether to arrest an individual is a law enforcement decision.”

Cisneros, the shelter’s interim director at the time, declined to comment.

After the teen was tased and taken into custody, the footage doesn’t capture Southwest Key staffers making objections to Divers’ actions. In one conversation between deputies and Julie Tamez, who was listed in records as the child’s lead case manager at the time, Tamez explained that the child had previously been in a different facility. “Where they send all the gangs and the sicarios and stuff, like people who kill?” she said. “He was all the way up there.”

After she informs Divers that the child may bang his head against the window, Divers responds, “I ain’t worried about it.” 

Tamez throws her head up, shrugs and smiles. “Apparently, when they cross countries without anybody, they feel they know all,” she told the deputies. 

When reached by phone last month, Tamez stressed that she wasn’t the person who called 911 the day the child was tased. She said other shelters in the area are serviced by the San Antonio Police Department, which Tamez said has more Spanish-language speakers – and added that she would have been happy to provide language interpretation between Divers and the child. But she wasn’t given the opportunity to do so. Tamez said she was shocked by how quickly the situation escalated after Divers’ arrival to the shelter.

“I was very surprised to see that there was a Taser used,” she said. 

She expressed regret for what happened and wanted the child and his family to know she was sorry for what occurred that day. Tamez said she would never call 911 for a similar situation. “I would just try to implement what we could do instead,” she said. “We would try verbal judo or timeouts.”

The child who was tased in Texas is now back in Virginia – he was sent to the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center for a third time in mid-May. In nearly two years, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has moved him into 10 placements across four states. 

The boy could be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for adult detention when he turns 18 in September. At that time, the possibility of a special visa reserved for children abandoned by a parent will evaporate. 

And the legal and social services granted to him by the federal government as a minor will also vanish, along with the traumatic pubescent years wasted in refugee agency custody.