It’s recently come to light that immigrant children who have been forcibly separated from their families are being abused in U.S. detention centers. Immigrant detention has a long and troubling history in the United States, but the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigrant policy went one step further by prosecuting those who illegally immigrate into the country and forcibly separating them from their children.
The government began quietly enforcing this policy in July 2017, but it wasn’t until the ACLU filed a lawsuit in February 2018 from a mother who alleged that she had been separated from her 7-year-old daughter at the border that the public began to take notice. Several weeks into the case the ACLU requested that the judge turn it into a class-action lawsuit to address the hundreds of parents who also claimed that the government had forcibly separated them from their children.
In April 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo doubling down on the zero tolerance immigraton policy, noting that it would likely result in families being separated at the border. Within a month, the Department of Homeland Security had officially adopted the policy.
As reports emerged about the impact of family separation, it sparked a public outcry, causing Trump to reverse the policy with an Executive Order. However, this reversal failed to provide a solution for the families who had already been separated.
The judge in the ACLU case demanded that the government reunite the families it had separated at the border, criticizing them for not using a better identification and tracking system. While many families were reunited by the July 26 deadline, the issue of how to reunite children with family members who had been deported remained unclear.
Advocacy groups have been leading the effort to reunite the remaining families, but it quickly became clear that the numbers provided by the government regarding how many families had been separated and how many children were still being detained were inaccurate.
In December it came to light that families were still being separated at the border. DHS claimed that it was only doing so in cases of gang and criminal activity and that numbers were much lower than when they first instituted the policy. Activists argued that the government was continuing to pursue the zero tolerance policy under a different name.
In January 2019, the Health and Human Services Inspector General released an explosive report revealing that thousands more children may have been separated from their parents than the 2,737 cases officials had already acknowledged. The report suggested that there was no way of knowing exactly how many separations occurred because those children were released from custody before the government started keeping track.
Amidst all of this chaos, it’s recently come to light that the conditions of the detention centers where children are being held is reminiscent of World War II internment camps.
Conditions at migrant detention centers
The Associated Press recently visited a migrant detention facility in Clint, Texas where 250 infants, children, and teenagers were being held. The report claimed that the children were not being given adequate water, food, or sanitation and described teenage mothers and younger kids being forced to care for infants and toddlers on their own, with little or no help from adults.
Warren Binford, one of the lawyers who visited the detention center described what he saw to PBS, stating, “We saw… dirty children who are malnourished, who are being severely neglected. They are being kept in inhumane conditions. They are essentially being warehoused, as many as 300 children in a cell, with almost no adult supervision.”
Binford said that of the children he had spoken with, almost all reported crossing the border with family members. Many of them have family members in the United States who would gladly take them in.
It was reported that children at the Clint station were moved to alleviate overcrowding and that only 30 migrant children remained at the facility, but shortly afterwards news broke that 100 of the children had been taken back to the detention center.
The conditions for adult migrants is not much better. At a detention center in El Paso, a cell designed for 12 people was crammed with 76, forcing people to stand on the toilets for breathing space. In another facility, up to 900 migrants were held in a space designed for 125. In another case, a teenage mother with a sick and dirty premature baby spent 9 days detained without access to medical care for her newborn.
Since Trump has been in office, 24 immigrants have died in ICE custody, according to an NBC News analysis of federal data. This does not include at least four other people who died shortly after being released from ICE custody or the migrants, including five children, who have died in the custody of other federal agencies.
Last week, administration lawyers argued that they are not required to provide beds, toothbrushes, or soap to detained migrant children, despite a consent decree in which the government pledged to provide children with “safe and sanitary” conditions. Concerned citizens have tried to address this oversight by donating such items, but the US Border Patrol has refused to accept them.
Lawmakers can’t seem to decide who to blame for this gross humanitarian negligence. In an Oval Office interview on Tuesday, Donald Trump refused to take responsibility for the crisis, saying that the facilities were built under the Obama administration and that current conditions are the fault of Democrats who won’t agree to policy changes that would halt the flow of immigrants at the border.
Texas Democrats have been vocal in demanding that conditions at the migrant detention centers be improved. Chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Joaquin Castro announced that the Caucus will conduct an investigation of the Clint facility next week.
On Tuesday, House Democrats passed a $4.5 billion emergency border aid funding bill in hopes of addressing the crisis. The bill contains more than $1 billion to shelter and feed migrants detained by border patrol and almost $3 billion to care for unaccompanied migrant children who are turned over the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It seeks to mandate improved standards of care at HHS shelters that house children waiting to be placed with sponsors such as family members in the U.S.
The White House has already threatened to veto the House bill and there’s a chance that it will stall in the Senate, which passed its own measure on Wednesday. Both bills specify that funding could not be shifted to Trump’s border wall and would block information on sponsors of immigrant children from being used to deport them. Trump would also be denied additional funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds. Congress plans to leave Washington in a few days for a weeklong 4th of July recess and there’s mounting pressure for lawmakers to produce a bill that the President will sign.
News of these inhumane conditions has drawn criticism from the public, with many claiming that they mimic World War II concentration camps. George Takei, a Japanese actor who was held in a U.S. internment camp believes that referring to these centers as concentration camps is an accurate description, as does Jewish historian Anna Lind-Guzik.
Protestors demonstrated earlier this week when it was unveiled that the government planned to use Army base and former internment camp Fort Sill in Oklahoma as a detention center for up to 1,400 migrant children. The base currently functions as a military training ground and national landmark, but its history includes the internment of hundreds of Chiricahua Apache warriors in the 19th century (Geronimo is buried at the base) as well as the detention of approximately 700 Japanese immigrants during World War II. In 1942, one mentally ill Japanese man was fatally shot at the premises while trying to escape.
Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol John Sanders announced on Tuesday that he’s resigning amidst intense public criticism of how his agency has handled the migrant crisis. In an interview with the Associated Press, he spoke about how poorly equipped Border Patrol stations are to handle the influx of migrant children and that the deaths of children in his agency’s care have weighed heavily on him. He will leave his post on July 5.
Sanders will be replaced by Mark Morgan, the current head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Morgan has pushed back against public criticism, saying that ICE is not dealing with a “systemic problem” and questioning whether conditions at the detention centers are truly “egregious.” He agreed with Sanders that emergency funding is needed to provide better conditions.
Self and Community Care
It’s hard to imagine that one’s government could commit such atrocities, even though on an intellectual level most of us are aware that similar abuses have been carried out throughout history all over the world. People are appropriately outraged and this means that our social media feeds are filled with related news, action items, and sometimes traumatic images. It can be overwhelming, so make sure that you’re taking care of yourself and are present for your needs. Try to stay informed without getting consumed. It can help to reduce time on social media or set aside specific times when you check trusted news sources.
In addition to the horrible conditions at migrant detention centers, increased ICE raids across America are creating a culture of fear that extends beyond immigrant communities. These events could trigger generational trauma for anyone whose family has struggled with displacement in America. If you are feeling this way, know that you are not alone. It might help to surround yourself with and open up to people who might be feeling similarly.
In this time of increased division, it’s even more important that we reach out to and support each other. It may be too triggering to try to reason with someone who has opposing views on this topic, but you might find it beneficial to talk with someone in a different age group to understand a different perspective. Our elders lived through a similar experience with World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and countless other events. They might have wisdom to share about themes that see resurfacing or advice on how they got through it.
Because of their innocence and intense empathy, children also have a unique perspective. This news might be especially scary for them as they might have friends or family who are in fear of deportation. To children, there is never a justifiable reason to treat another human with such disregard. As adults we become so desensitized to human rights violations that we forget how completely counter they are to our true nature. Listening to a child’s perspective of what is happening can help us understand how truly inexcusable it is and push us into action. It is also a nurturing activity for the child who likely does not have many spaces where they can freely express how these crises are affecting them.
What can be done?
Here’s a comprehensive Google Doc about Taking Action on Immigrant Detention
These are the actions recommended by the Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG) organization:
(1) Contribute to the Project Corazon Travel Fund so that more lawyers (particularly Spanish-speaking immigration lawyers) can be sent to the detention centers and refugee camps where help is desperately needed. L4GG has already sent 37 and will be able to send more lawyers with your help: Click here to learn more & donate.
(2) Pledge your frequent flier miles to help get more lawyers to the border. If you have unused airline miles, you can pledge your airline miles to help the cause thanks to L4GG’s partnership with Lawyer Moms of America. These miles are used to help cover travel costs for pro bono attorneys. Click here to pledge your airline miles to the travel fund.
(3) Volunteer your time and expertise. A few ways you can do that:
- If you’re an immigration lawyer who would be willing to donate your time to help asylum seekers in remote locations (but can’t afford the associated travel expenses), click here to apply for travel funding.
- If you’re bilingual (Spanish/English) and have a few hours a week to help conduct intake interviews with detained asylum-seekers remotely (by phone), click here to learn more about how you can help with L4GG’s remote intake program.
- If you’re a lawyer at a large law firm, ask your pro bono coordinator whether your firm is part of Project Corazon. If your firm is already a Project Corazon partner, there may be immediate opportunities for you to volunteer for L4GG’s projects. If your firm would like to learn more about partnering with us, please ask your pro bono coordinator to email corazon@L4GG.org.
If you’re unable to offer money, miles, time, or expertise, you can still help by sharing this information with your friends, family, and contacts via email, Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks.
Call your representatives:
ResistBot and 5Calls.org are excellent resources for finding out who your local representatives are and make it simple to get in touch via letter, phone call, or other means. Here’s a recommended script found on LifeHacker:
Hi, my name is
I’m outraged and appalled by the reports of abuses of detained immigrants, from massive overcrowding to denial of necessary medical care to children. I urge
IF LEAVING A VOICEMAIL: Please leave your full street address to ensure your call is tallied.
2020 is an election year and there are currently 27 politicians who plan on running for president, including 25 Democrats and 2 Republicans (including current President Donald Trump). As you’re researching candidates, look up their stance on the border crisis and migrant detention. Demand that this issue be included in their platforms and look for specific solutions as to how they plan to alleviate this crisis.
Donate or volunteer with the following organizations who are providing direct relief to migrants held in detention centers:
Remember that you have a voice and that there is power in using it for a cause you believe in.