It is hard to sleep at night knowing that hundreds of children as young as 1, 2, and 3 years old, and even infants, are being locked up by the U.S. government under degrading, repulsive conditions. The images emerging from immigration detention centers where they are being held, sometimes for weeks, are nauseating. Children reek of a filthy stench and bodily fluids like urine are caked on their clothes. They are denied toothbrushes, soap, showers, adequate food and medical care. They are being forced to sleep on cold cement floors, and the bright lights are never turned off. The children are often hungry and always scared. The horrific accounts keep unfolding: A mother, wheelchair-bound, who begged for something to wrap her premature newborn in, was given a dirty blanket. Children were told to share combs after a lice infestation. A Border Patrol officer coaxed an inconsolable 6-year-old back into his cell with a lollipop. Officers are laughing at detained children and mothers, cursing them and telling them to drink out of toilets. Even the youngest are not spared the humiliation and inhumane treatment: Children 7- and 8-years-old are forced to care for toddlers. Babies are denied formula and clean bottles and are left crying on the floor, unattended and in soiled clothes.
Sadly, this is by no means the first time reports of migrant children being detained and abused have surfaced. The detention of migrant minors has been a tragic practice of our government for decades and one that advocates have worked tirelessly to limit, monitor and end. As we speak, litigation continues in the historic Flores case battling this issue. Under the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement and related legislation, the U.S. government could only detain children for immigration purposes in the least restrictive setting, no longer than 72 hours and only if conditions are “safe and sanitary.” However, time and again, the government does not comply. Children are habitually being detained for lengthy periods in conditions that have been likened to torture. Just over a year ago, hundreds of migrant children were forcefully and tearfully separated from their families after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under the Trump administration’s direction, began a zero tolerance policy. Even after a federal court judge ordered the reunification of the families, many remained separated and reports of sexual abuse during detention began to appear.
The most recent reports, which have mainly come out of a Border Patrol station in Clint, TX result from the hard work of Flores advocates over the past few weeks. They were so disturbed by what they saw and heard from the children at the facility that they decided to speak to the media and filed for an emergency restraining order in U.S. District Court asking for the inspection of CBP facilities, immediate medical care and prompt processing of backlogged cases.
Putting all politics of immigration enforcement aside, the imprisonment and abhorrent treatment of young children is simply unacceptable. It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to “humanely” detain children. The very acts of forcing children into cages, denying them the fundamental right of being with family, and then grossly failing to meet their basic needs unquestionably amount to serious human rights violations. The reports of sickening physical and sexual abuse, children’s deaths in custody and the billions of dollars made by companies in the immigration detention industry make it all the more deplorable. It must end.
Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that “even short periods of detention can cause psychological trauma and long-term mental health risks for children.” We clearly need something broader than a court case and periodic media outrage to end this crisis. We have already failed thousands of children, but it is never too late to work towards a different future. We need a grassroots movement, a sustained outcry for the complete abolishment of this cruel and unnecessary practice. We can regulate our border and ensure national security and public safety without tearing children away from their families and locking them up. We need to demand an alternative from our lawmakers. In the meantime, we should also support the non-profit organizations striving to mend the wounds on the ground and work to raise awareness about this issue in our communities (consider these ideas for action items). If enough of us say and do something, no matter how small, we can one day make placing a child in prison for crossing our border a thing of the past.