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Detention Centers for Children: America's Shame

Published in ChicagoNow, June 25, 2019

Seventy-two years ago today, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl was published. I remember reading it when I was thirteen, around the age she started writing her thoughts while in hiding from the Nazis during World War II. And then I asked my parents why. Why didn’t anyone do anything to stop the Holocaust? My parents claimed they didn’t know about it until the war had ended. I found that hard to believe. But the current crisis with migrant children being separated from their adults and held in detention centers under appalling conditions gives me a bit more of an understanding of my parents’ claims that they didn’t know how bad things were until it was too late.

Part of the problem of doing something about detention centers for children – like the one recently reported on in Clint, Texas, that held hundreds of children without basic things like soap, toothbrushes, blankets, and adults to care for them – is even knowing that they exist. The Trump administration has managed to impose a news blackout. Reporters, let alone photographers, are not allowed in these facilities. If it hadn’t been for lawyers and advocates who were allowed to see some of the kids housed there alerting the news, we still would not know.

One attorney, W. Warren Binford, was horrified by seeing:\

  • A 15-year-old mother with her baby covered in mucus.

  • A four-year-old with hair so matted and dirty from not bathing in over a week that it would have to be cut off.

  • A 14-year-old caring for a two-year-old without a diaper who shrugged when the baby urinated because she did not know what to do.

  • Children who had showered or brushed their teeth only once or twice in three weeks.

  • No toothbrushes or soap.

  • A warehouse where children lived that had portable toilets.

  • Toilets in the main building that were in plain view, humiliating children when they had to use them with no privacy.

  • Inconsolable children who had been separated from their parents, siblings, and other relatives.

Other lawyers reported seeing seven-year-old kids, wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, who were attempting to care for infants. They saw toddlers without diapers who were relieving themselves in their pants, and teenage mothers wearing clothes stained with breast milk. Children were sleeping on concrete floors with aluminum blankets. If there had been bedding, it was removed due to lice infestations. Many children had flu-like illnesses. Children told the lawyers they were given the same meals every day — instant oatmeal for breakfast, instant noodles for lunch, one frozen burrito for dinner, a few cookies, and juice packets. Many said it was not enough to eat and were very hungry. Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School and one of the lawyers who visited the facility, described a stench because most of the children had not bathed since they crossed the border.

A 1997 consent decree, the Flores Settlement Agreement, requires that the federal government keep immigrant children in “safe and sanitary” conditions while they are in custody and that they are transferred out of detention quickly. These children are supposed to be transferred to the custody of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. They should then be placed with a parent, relative or guardian already living in the United States. Clearly, that has not been happening.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics,

“Immigrant children seeking safe haven in the United States, whether arriving unaccompanied or in family units, face a complicated evaluation and legal process from the point of arrival through permanent resettlement in communities. The conditions in which children are detained and the support services that are available to them are of great concern to pediatricians and other advocates for children. In accordance with internationally accepted rights of the child, immigrant and refugee children should be treated with dignity and respect and should not be exposed to conditions that may harm or traumatize them. The Department of Homeland Security facilities do not meet the basic standards for the care of children in residential settings. The recommendations in this statement call for limited exposure of any child to current Department of Homeland Security facilities (i.e., Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities) and for longitudinal evaluation of the health consequences of detention of immigrant children in the United States. From the moment children are in the custody of the United States, they deserve health care that meets guideline-based standards, treatment that mitigates harm or traumatization, and services that support their health and well-being.”

We now know that migrant children continue not to be treated with “dignity and respect.” They continue to be “exposed to conditions that may harm or traumatize them.” In our 24/7 news cycle, now that we know what has been happening to migrant children in a country that used to pride itself on being a democracy that offered a beacon of hope to the world, we cannot look away. We can donate to organizations dedicated to helping these children. We can protest. We can hold our representatives in Congress, the Trump administration, and all of the candidates running for President in 2020 accountable.

When my grandchildren ask me why I didn’t do anything to help these migrant children suffering in detention centers, what will I tell them? Will I say the same thing as my parents told me about the Holocaust? I didn’t know? I thought the family separation policy had ended a year ago? I believed our government? I didn’t see any pictures or read about it in the news? While all of these things may be true, I know now. We all know. It is time to act.


by Laurie Levy
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