Free the Children: Caging Migrant Children is Inhumane and Unjust

Warehousing and caging migrant and refugee children in tent cities in the middle of the desert without (or even with) their parents is cruel, inhumane, unjust, and intolerable.

The Washington Post wrote an editorial that criticized the Trump Administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy that led to the separation of almost three thousand children from their parents, which has left children sitting in detention centers all across this country and even the deportation of some parents without their children. As the editorial concludes:

Children, parents, sponsors — all are candidates for cruelty at the hands of an administration carrying out a crusade against immigrants, a policy that diminishes the nation.

The Post editorial was actually quite tame in light of the fact that extensive evidence from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) research points to significant life-long impact that this experience will have on these children. In addition to family separation, recent reports of abuse and neglect in the detention centers are further traumatizing to children because of incoherent government policy and action.

It is child abuse and it can all be easily prevented, but sadly, the policy of family separation has been intentional.

Trump Administration officials have repeatedly lied about various aspect of their immigration policies and are sadly ignorant and tone deaf about the negative and enduring consequences they will have on children.

They have even tried to compare these detention centers to “summer camps” and then doubled down on that claim.

Administration officials also admitted to not having bothered to become educated about the research on how family separation negatively impacts children, even from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) whistleblowers on the terrible consequences.

Compounding the harm, hundreds of children remain separated from their parents due to the Administration’s failure to comply with a court order to reunite families, has deported hundreds of parents without their children, ripped some children away from their families and into foster care or adoption, and tragically flew a child back to Guatemala without notifying the parent so the child spent time in yet another shelter alone.

The Administration is also exploiting information given to them by children in order to deport their parents or family members who are coming forward to try to take care of these kids. The Women’s Refugee Commission points out this policy violates “the fundamental principle of child welfare law” to protect children and “exploits the natural desire of children to seek protection with family and the fundamental desire of family to protect their children to elicit information for law enforcement rather than family reunification purposes.”

Our nation is committing a huge injustice and enormous harm to children who have done nothing to deserve this treatment. It harkens back to our nation’s operation of internment camps during World War II, which is one of the country’s darkest moments in history where Japanese-Americans were officially labeled “enemy aliens” and placed in 10 camps in remote areas, much like the tent city where migrant children are now living in the desert in West Texas.

A 1943 government film sought to justify the internment camps. In it, Milton S. Eisenhower (the brother of then General Dwight Eisenhower), Director of the War Relocation Authority, said:

In each relocation center. . ., naturally the newcomers looked about with some curiously. They were in a new area, on land that was raw, untamed, and full of opportunity. Here they would build schools, educate their children, reclaim the desert.. . . Special emphasis was put on the health and care of these [children]. . .

He attempts to justify it all by arguing:

We are protecting ourselves without violating the principles of Christian decency.

Watch it. It is shocking.

During World War II, our nation violated every fundamental principle of human rights and Christian decency by rounding up and detaining Japanese-Americans while they tried to justify the policy as the opposite. Every president (other than Donald Trump) has since has apologized for this failure and human rights disaster.

Sadly, 65 years later, Lynn A. Johnson, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and others in the Trump Administration are doing it again.

Representing the Trump Administration’s position, she tragically fails to see the parallels and the disastrous consequences of the policies that her department is enforcing upon children and families who are fleeing threats of violence, including physical harm, rape, and even death.

George Takei sees the parallels between the World War II camps and today’s detention centers for migrant children. He and his family were placed in an internment camp during World War II. In an article he wrote for Foreign Policy, he says it is “hard to describe the terror and anxiety.” He adds:

There is nowhere to turn. . . You are without rights, held without charge or trial. The world is upside down, information-less, and indifferent or even hostile to your plight.

In making the comparison, Takei adds:

And yet, in one core, horrifying way this is worse. At least during the internment of Japanese-Americans, I and other children were not stripped from our parents. We were not pulled screaming from our mothers’ arms. We were not left to change the diapers of younger children by ourselves.

Former First Lady Laura Bush also sees the parallels. As she wrote for the Washington Post:

Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. We also know that this treatment inflicts trauma; those who have been interned have been twice as likely to suffer cardiovascular disease or die prematurely than those who were not interned.

And yet, in a letter to the Washington Post, Johnson attempts to defend the Trump Administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policies and their treatment of children. She weakly claims:

.each minor receives an individual bed

Of course, it is not so humanitarian when you consider this bed is located a room behind a wall or fence with a number of other children and adults that the child does not know and cannot be comforted by them, or even their own siblings, when they are sad, afraid, or hurt.

care and supervision

Behind these fences and walls, there may be “supervision” but certainly not “care.” Again, detention center staff cannot comfort children when they are upset or lonely and some of these guards have committed heinous acts of sexual abuse against children. That obviously fails to meet any minimal definition of “care.” In fact, the Administration recently closed a shelter in Arizona over such failure, but it is far too late for the children that were abused and harmed.

access to legal services

Sometimes children may get legal services but without help from our government. Help comes from non-governmental organizations, but again, often without their parents and family to help guide and inform their cases for asylum. Other children receive no legal support at all and are tragically left without legal services in courtrooms to make their own case for asylum, including toddlers. The New Yorker even reported that the government got a six-year-old girl to sign away her rights to basic legal protections.

Helen, a 5-year-old from Honduras separated from family — Source: LUPE/New Yorker
medical care

There are numerous reports of medical neglect, drugging and overmedicating children without consent, violations of patient confidentiality, and even a reported death of a child. There are also growing reports of depression, self-harm, and behavioral disorders being caused by their incarceration and separation from family. The harm being imposed vastly outweighs any benefits.

three meals a day, snacks (including catered events and food trucks); recreation, including soccer, basketball, movies, arts and crafts, and board games

So, they may have had their parents and families taken away and have been denied reunification with their families due to a failed policy, but hey, they can eat Goldfish and pretzels and play Yahtzee! and Monopoly?

Minors receive educational services from retired teachers and a school administrator using textbooks and workbooks in a study-hall format.

What education is being provided is poor or inadequate, but Ms. Johnson should know that children are specifically not being educated at the Tornillo tent facilities that she cited and that the State of Texas has explicitly prohibited the use of funding to help education these children potentially in violation of the constitutional protections granted in Plyler v. Doe.

This is far from the ‘cavalier cruelty’ described in the editorial.

She is right there. It isn’t “cavalier” at all. It is far worse because has been quite purposeful and imposed without regard to the harm would have and still is having on children. As First Lady Laura Bush said:

. . .this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart. . . In 2018, can we not as a nation find a kinder, more compassionate and more moral answer to this current crisis? I, for one, believe we can.

And yet, Ms. Johnson refuses to even admit to the problem. In her letter-to-the-editor, she adds:

Every minor in our care is treated with dignity and respect.

No, they are not. Not even close.

The services provided are delivered in a compassionate and organized manner while we work expeditiously to find a suitable sponsor.

She can’t possibly be serious. A recent Inspector General’s report listing numerous failures by the government since inception of the “Zero Tolerance” policy that have led to the inappropriate separation of children from their parents, the deportation of parents without their children, and the inability to find and match parents with children because of disastrous and inconsistent record-keeping that have still not been fixed. Kids have been purposely harmed by government action but also due to negligence and disregard.

Meanwhile, instead of fixing the raft of problems identified by the Inspector General, VICE News reports that the Administration is spending time and money on x-raying the teeth of immigrant children and sending them to forensic dentists to conduct “age assessment” reviews on minors in order to possible relocate them to adult detention centers. This is happening in likely violation of the “Trafficking Victims Reauthorization and Protection Act.”

Meanwhile, our office is not only following current law but also following our mission to care for children.

No Ms. Johnson, in addition to the “Trafficking Victims Reauthorization and Protection Act,” the Administration is also failing to comply with the law by failing to adhere to the terms of the Flores Settlement, which is supposed to provide basic protections for the care of children. The Administration has even proposed a rule change so that it won’t have to comply with even those minimal standards.

We strongly oppose efforts to gut these basic protections for children and urge everyone concerned to submit comments in opposition to this proposed rule change.

We also agree with every single word of Senator Maggie Hassan’s (D-NH) statement in opposition to the Trump Administration’s policies related to the detention of migrant children who do not deserve the government-sponsored harm and abuse that are being imposed upon them.

Finally, all of this is completely unnecessary. There are alternatives that are far less expensive and far more humane than what the Administration has been enforcing. As Alexia Fernandez Campbell reports for Vox:

Up until recently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was running two such programs at the national level: the Intensive Supervision Alternative Program (ISAP), which involves electronic monitoring, and the less restrictive Family Case Management Program (FCMP), which relied on community monitoring. The methods used in these programs are available to DHS, and are much cheaper than traditional detention — but the Trump administration is choosing to keep families behind bars instead.

What makes this so disturbing and upsetting is that the harm being imposed is quite purposeful. And just when you thought it could not possibly get worse, the Administration is also considering a horrific policy they would call “binary choice.” According to the Washington Post:

One option under consideration is for the government to detain asylum-seeking families together for up to 20 days, then give parents a choice — stay in family detention with their child for months or years as their immigration case proceeds, or allow children to be taken to a government shelter so other relatives or guardians can seek custody.

Both are atrocious and dire choices for children who, once again, have done nothing to deserve such treatment. Sadly, our government believes that cruel and inhumane policies directed at children and families are somehow good for America. It is part of an ongoing war on children that is devoid of compassion and family values.

Instead, our nation’s immigration policy should be governed by a “best interest of the child” standard. This would include:

1. The child’s views

2. The child’s identity

3. Preservation of the family environment and maintaining relations

4. The care, protection, and safety of the child

5. A situation of vulnerability

6. The child’s right to health

7. The child’s right to education

In the future, our own children and grandchildren will look back and wonder how we as a nation could have possibly been so cruel and inhumane to children. We are bearing witness to government-sanctioned child abuse.

We should be better than this. For God’s sake, we have to be.