By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Immigration activists filed a complaint with the U.S. government on Wednesday alleging systematic abuse of more than 100 unaccompanied migrant children by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.
The complaint, addressed to the Department of Homeland Security by a coalition of groups, says 116 youths suffered abuse including sexual assault and beatings, were denied medical care and were not given enough food and water.
It was filed amid a surge of children trying to slip into the United States, largely from Central American countries, often hoping to join a parent already here.
According to the complaint, the alleged offenses took place in Texas and Arizona. It said the youths ranged in age from five to 17-years-old, and are mainly from Central America and Mexico.
"After completing a perilous journey into the United States, many are subjected to various forms of abuse, harassment and other harms at the hands of the Border Patrol," the complaint read. "Children consistently reported being held in unsanitary, overcrowded and freezing cold cells."
A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection said mistreatment or misconduct was not tolerated, and that the authorities had gone to extra lengths to ensure the needs of unaccompanied migrant children were met.
"In the face of overwhelming numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the border in South Texas, U.S. Border Patrol agents have taken extraordinary measures to care for these children while in custody and to maintain security in overcrowded facilities," said spokesman Michael Friel.
The complaint, filed by groups including the National Immigrant Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, comes two days after the Obama administration designated a third military base as emergency housing for illegal child migrants.
Groups such as those that filed the complaint are pushing for policy reform to give an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country a pathway to citizenship.
Republican critics say photos of a packed detention center, and a policy that saw hundreds of illegal migrants freed at Arizona bus stops on a promise to self-report within 15 days, are proof of the government's failure.
Many of the recent young arrivals are teenagers fleeing poverty or violence in Mexico and Central American countries.
Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, said procedures are in place to prevent any abuse of the type described in the groups' complaint.
"The vast majority of these allegations turn out to be unfounded or a thinly veiled attempt to delay prosecution," said Moran, whose council represents 17,000 agents and other staff.
(Reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jim Loney)