What are the US-Mexico border camps and why are children held there?

<span>A mother from Peru feeds her son at the California-Mexico border in Jacumba Hot Springs, California, on 11 November November 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Go Nakamura/Reuters</span>
A mother from Peru feeds her son at the California-Mexico border in Jacumba Hot Springs, California, on 11 November November 2023.Photograph: Go Nakamura/Reuters

Children languishing in open-air camps along the US-Mexico border should be “expeditiously” provided with safe and sanitary housing, a federal district court judge ruled on Wednesday night.

Advocates have been raising the alarm for months that migrants, including unaccompanied children, are suffering from hunger, dehydration, untreated injuries and illness in outdoor holding areas on the California-Mexico border that lack shelter, food and sanitation. People have reported having to wait hours or days at these camps before they can be seen at immigration processing centres.

Related: US border patrol is responsible for safety of children in migrant camps, judge says

The legal challenge on behalf of children focused on two camps in San Diego, California – but the judge’s order could have far-reaching implications in an increasingly dire health crisis at the border.

What are these camps and why were they established?

Asylum seekers who enter the US outside official ports of entry are expected to present themselves to border patrol agents before they can be processed at immigration centres, where they are given medical screenings and background checks before beginning the legal process to claim asylum.

Because processing centres have been overwhelmed, agents have been sending people – including unaccompanied children – to wait at makeshift camps consisting of tents and improvised lean-tos made of tarp, rocks and scavenged wood. Several such camps have arisen along the border between California and Mexico, including one in between two border fences in San Diego and another in a remote mountainous region east of San Diego.

In San Diego’s high desert, where overnight temperatures dropped to below 30F, people had few ways to keep warm or shelter from harsh winds. Advocacy groups said children have taken shelter inside portable toilets, and burn garbage to stay warm.

Volunteers and aid workers, who are permitted at the sites at the discretion of border patrol agents, report treating children with open wounds and bone fractures, diarrhoea and vomiting, fevers and seizures. Emergency medical providers told the Guardian they have also witnessed elderly and pregnant people suffering from pains and medical complications.

Hunger and dehydration have also been major issues. Lawyers said the children at these camps had been given just one granola bar per day for sustenance.

How do families and children end up at these camps?

The US has also seen an increase in young families as well as unaccompanied children who make long, dangerous journeys to seek asylum at the border. Many are fleeing oppression, violence, poverty or climate disasters.

Normally, children travelling alone must be turned over to the US health and human services department within 72 hours, housed and cared for until they can be placed with a family member or sponsor in the US, or until they reach legal age. But at the border in California, some children have had to wait at camps for hours, or even days, until their cases are processed.

The government has argued that children who have not yet been processed at immigration centres were not under US custody, and therefore it had no obligation to provide them with care. In the court case, which focused specifically on the children, Gee disputed such assertions, writing: “Juveniles, unlike adults, are always in some form of custody.”

Many of the children had been directed to the sites by border patrol agents. Migrants told NPR that agents instructed them to stay at the camps, and advised that anyone who left would be deported.

What does the ruling mean for children in migrant border camps?

In a ruling on Wednesday, Judge Dolly M Gee of the United States district court of central California largely sided with advocates representing migrant children in a class-action lawsuit.

Gee ruled that the children at the border camps in California were in fact in legal custody of the Department of Homeland Security and were entitled to certain rights and protections. She ordered the agency to quickly process the children’s immigration claims and place them in “safe and sanitary” facilities.

The ruling will likely push US Customs and Border Protection to dedicate more resources to processing centres that have been overwhelmed by an influx of people.