Immigrant teen describes conditions in Phoenix ICE detention center

A 16-year-old immigrant recounted his experience in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility, offering details of crowded, windowless rooms, limited access to a single toilet and small children “crying all the time.”

Edmilson Aguilar Punay, a Guatemalan teenager who crossed the U.S.–Mexico border illegally last month, spent weeks in a Phoenix detainment center before being allowed to travel to Cincinnati, where his mother and siblings live.

Edmilson described being held with about 30 young men and boys in an “office sized” cell to the Cincinnati Enquirer, saying through an interpreter that he was packed into the windowless room for two days.

The cell, he said, had a single toilet.

“The smell was very bad. It wasn’t even separated by a wall,” Edmilson said. “They said we had air conditioning, [but] it was very hot in the room.”

He said the cell was so crowded that he could not lie down at times. Edmilson said he can still remember the sounds of young children — some as young as 5 — crying and screaming for their parents, from whom they had been separated.

“You could just hear cellphones ringing and children crying,” he said. “Where there were small children, you could hear them crying all the time.”

Edmilson told the Enquirer that an immigration officer told a young crying boy his mother would “come later.” But another boy in the cell said the younger boy’s mother had already been deported to Guatemala.

Edmilson told the Enquirer that he did not know whether it was night or day, and that the detainees were fed “sugary fruit juice and undercooked pre-packaged containers of chicken soup.” 

After two days and two nights in the crowded cell, he was transferred to a Phoenix detention center, where he was given fresh clothes and allowed to shower. 

Edmilson said he was treated better by guards there and that the facility was more like “a school.”

He was then transferred again to New York, where he spent another three weeks in a detention center about 25 miles from New York City before being flown to Cincinnati.

Edmilson’s account of his time in ICE custody follows weeks of outcry over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which has resulted in thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents.

On Wednesday, after a week of intense backlash over the policy, President Trump signed an executive order to halt the separation of families, but the administration has not yet said how they plan to reunite families that have already been separated.

Trump has said the administration will keep in place its zero tolerance policy, though families apprehended for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border will be detained together.

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