A 14-year old told us she was taking care of a 4-year old who had been placed in her cell with no relatives. “I take her to the bathroom, give her my extra food if she is hungry, and tell people to leave her alone if they are bothering her,” she said.
She was just one of the children we talked with last week as part of a team of lawyers and doctorsmonitoring conditions for children in US border facilities. We have been speaking out urgently, since then, about the devastating and abusive circumstances we’ve found. The Trump administration claims it needs even more detention facilities to address the issue, but policy makers and the public should not be fooled into believing this is the answer.
The situation we found is unacceptable. US Border Patrol is holding many children, including some who are much too young to take care of themselves, in jail-like border facilities for weeks at a time without contact with family members, regular access to showers, clean clothes, toothbrushes, or proper beds. Many are sick. Many, including children as young as 2 or 3, have been separated from adult caretakers without any provisions for their care besides the unrelated older children also being held in detention.
We spoke with an 11-year-old caring for his toddler brother. Both were fending for themselves in a cell with dozens of other children. The little one was quiet with matted hair, a hacking cough, muddy pants and eyes that fluttered closed with fatigue. As we interviewed the two brothers, he fell asleep on two office chairs drawn together, probably the most comfortable bed he had used in weeks. They had been separated from an 18-year-old uncle and sent to the Clint Border Patrol Station. When we met them, they had been there three weeks and counting.
“Sometimes when we ask, we are told we will be here for months,” said one 14-year-old who had also been at Clint for three weeks.
Some of the children we spoke with were sleeping on concrete floors and eating the same unpalatable and unhealthy food for close to a month: instant oatmeal, instant soup and a previously-frozen burrito. Children should spend no more than a few hours in short-term border jails to be processed and US-law limits their detention under typical circumstances to 72 hours.
The government has been unapologetic about conditions. A Department of Justice lawyer, Sarah Fabian, told judges in the Ninth Circuit last week that the government’s obligation to provide “safe and sanitary” conditions for child migrants does not require it to provide children with hygiene items such as soap or toothbrushes and it can have them sleep on concrete floors in cold, overcrowded cells.
These doctors risked their careers to expose the dangers children face in immigrant family detention. In late May, acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kevin McAleenan told reporters that the agency had 2,350 unaccompanied children in its custody awaiting placement in detention centers and shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The Trump administration wants more money to build more child detention centers to hold even more children, citing these relatively higher numbers of border arrivals. It is urging Congress’ swift approval of the Department of Homeland Security’s supplemental budget request for this purpose.
But that ask glosses over the fact that more children are in immigration custody because over the last several years the government has slowed down the rate at which children are reunified with their families. The government has sought to use children in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities as bait to arrest and deport the family members who come forward to care for them, according to a report by advocacy groups The Women’s Refugee Commission and the National Immigrant Justice Center.
Based on our interviews, officials at the border seem to be making no effort to release children to caregivers– many have parents in the US — rather than holding them for weeks in overcrowded cells at the border, incommunicado from their desperate loved ones. By holding and then transferring them down the line to ORR facilities, the government is turning children into pawns for immigration enforcement.
A second-grader we interviewed entered the room silently but burst into tears when we asked who she traveled with to the US. “My aunt,” she said, with a keening cry. A bracelet on her wrist had the words “US parent” and a phone number written in permanent marker. We called the number on the spot and found out that no one had informed her desperate parents where she was being held. Some of the most emotional moments of our visit came witnessing children speak for the first time with their parents on an attorney’s phone.
Trump and his sadistic henchmen believe that if they torture refugees and their children enough they won’t make the desperate trip to our border to try to save their lives. That is not hyperbole:
Trump administration officials weighed speeding up the deportation of migrant children by denying them their legal right to asylum hearings after separating them from their parents, according to comments on a late 2017 draft of what became the administration’s family separation policy obtained by NBC News.
The draft also shows officials wanted to specifically target parents in migrant families for increased prosecutions, contradicting the administration’s previous statements. In June, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the administration did “not have a policy of separating families at the border” but was simply enforcing existing law.
The authors noted that the “increase in prosecutions would be reported by the media and it would have a substantial deterrent effect.”
The draft plan was provided to NBC News by the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D.-Ore., which says it was leaked by a government whistleblower.
In the draft memo, called “Policy Options to Respond to Border Surge of Illegal Immigration” and dated Dec. 16, 2017, officials from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security lay out a blueprint of options, some of which were later implemented and others that have not yet been put into effect.
At the time, the number of undocumented immigrants seeking to cross the southern border was near historic monthly lows: 40,519 in December 2017, compared to 58,379 the same month the year prior.
The document was circulated between high level officials at DHS and the Justice Department, at least one of whom was instrumental in writing the first iteration of the administration’s travel ban.
The plan, and the comments written in the margins, provide a window into the policy discussion thinking at the time, how far officials were willing to go to deter families seeking asylum and what they may still be considering.
In one comment, the Justice Department official suggests that Customs and Border Protection could see that children who have been separated from their parents would be denied an asylum hearing before an immigration judge, which is typically awarded to children who arrive at the border alone.
Instead, the entire family would be given an order of “expedited removal” and then separated, placing the child in the care of HHS in U.S. Marshall’s custody while both await deportation.
“If CBP issues an ER [expedited removal] for the entire family unit, places the parents in the custody of the U.S. Marshal, and then places the minors with HHS, it would seem that DHS could work with HHS to actually repatriate [deport] the minors then,” the official wrote.
“It would take coordination with the home countries, of course, but that doesn’t seem like too much of a cost to pay compared to the status quo.”
It is unclear from the official’s comment whether the government planned on reunifying children with their parents before they were deported.
“It appears that they wanted to have it both ways — to separate children from their parents but deny them the full protections generally awarded to unaccompanied children,” said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who led the class action suit on behalf of migrant parents who had been separated from their children.
A DHS official told NBC News on the condition of anonymity because the department does not comment on pre-decisional documents that the draft’s authors’ intent was to enable agencies to reunify families after they were separated for prosecution.
But the draft and comments do not mention plans to reunify.
They adapted to the legal restraints on these cruel plans but only barely. The intention has never changed. They seek to deter these refugees and they are using any means necessary. I have no doubt that they sincerely believe that by torturing these little kids they can persuade their families, here and in their home countries, that America does not want them.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “concentration camp” as “a camp where persons are confined, usually without hearings and typically under harsh conditions, often as a result of their membership in a group the government has identified as dangerous or undesirable.”
If that description doesn’t fit these centers, then I don’t know what does.
The fact is, they are concentration camps. The problem is, most Americans don’t want to live in a country that allows them, so they will never admit they exist. Problem. The United States of America under Donald Trump has concentration camps and they’re full of babies.
For what it’s worth, the Nazis never told their citizens about their concentration camps either. They just handed them the soap.
It is indefensible.
A Trump official tried to argue that detained children don’t need soap, toothbrushes, or beds to be ‘safe and sanitary’ while in Border Patrol custody pic.twitter.com/rSOddw7RUS— NowThis (@nowthisnews) June 25, 2019
RELATED — Good samaritans get turned away:
2/ News reports have been circulating of facilities having drinking water that tastes like bleach and sick children without enough clothing. https://t.co/Pwj3wq9rYt— Texas Tribune (@TexasTribune) June 24, 2019
I just send this letter to RGV Border Patrol to ask for a list of items that we can donate to help the children in over-crowded detention centers. The feds are often too slow to act, and I want to personally reach out to offer the full support of the RGV & Texas. #RGV #Txlege pic.twitter.com/OWMCOwcvju— Terry Canales (@TerryCanales40) June 22, 2019
The United States Border Patrol has responded, telling my office they do no accept donations. How ridiculous is this? #DontGetMeStarted https://t.co/ZpzGRHtq2D— Terry Canales (@TerryCanales40) June 22, 2019
From my latest @NewYorker. ICE officers are increasingly questioning the agency’s mission: https://t.co/jmEj69j0YW pic.twitter.com/MSe1VeKy8R— Jonathan Blitzer (@JonathanBlitzer) June 25, 2019
Is this statement true in any way? Neither the tweet nor the 9 minute interview disclosed msnbc’s view. https://t.co/fGEf3baOdP— southpaw (@nycsouthpaw) June 25, 2019
So is it true? No. Even at ORR’s Casa Padre, credible reports indicate the children are detained, the doors have locks, the perimeter has a fence, and the children are not “free” to saunter out the main entrance and shuffle off to Buffalo. https://t.co/ZtUWY84xMb— southpaw (@nycsouthpaw) June 25, 2019
Breaking on @MSNBC: NBC's Gabe Gutierrez reports 100 migrant children moved out of the Clint, Texas Border Patrol facility, a facility described as "appalling," have been moved back into that facility. It is unclear where the other children moved out of that facility have gone.— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) June 25, 2019
Breaking from NYT: The Customs and Border Protection agency's acting commissioner, John Sanders, is expected to step down in the coming weeks. https://t.co/Fjp6btyuKv— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) June 25, 2019
He resigned as 100 or so children were returned to the horrible facility. I wonder if it was the “returning” part that got him in dutch with Trump. Like, Trump ordered the return, and he objected.