As a nation, as a world, we have been understandably preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been worried about our physical health, our mental health, our finances, our families, and of course, our children. Kids are anxious, frightened, and forced into a situation where they have been stripped of life as they know it. No real school, limited contact with friends, and extended family, and witnessing loved ones absorb an immense amount of stress leaking into every undercurrent of life. This, we know. We know far too well.
I need you all to step outside your own discomfort right now. There is another crisis festering in our country but our preoccupation with a crippling pandemic and a chaotic, sometimes maniacal White House has distracted us from this grotesque inhumanity. Perhaps distraction is exactly what the President was hoping for. Because for the last four years the United States Government has sanctioned child abuse on our own soil.
Let me be clear. This is not a new problem. Our immigration system has been broken for decades. Detention centers for migrants, both adults, and children have existed in the U.S. for 30 years. Innocent children behind bars is not another 2020 tragedy. It is not just a Trump policy in which an irrational and battered end justifies reprehensible means. In fact, the Obama Administration built cages in 2014 in a warehouse in Nogales, Arizona. The makeshift shelter was erected due to an exodus of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America. Those children did not arrive with their parents; they were alone, frightened, and wildly undeserving of the treatment they received. They were kept in unsafe and unsanitary facilities unfit for animals. It was just as abhorrent then, as it is now. But there is an important defining factor in the motivation and operation of these child prisons. The shelter utilized under the previous administration was not an arm of a child separation policy and U.S. border agents were not ordered to take these children from their parents. Did it occasionally happen? Yes. And that is a weight the Obama Administration has to live with. Because it was wrong. Dead wrong. It was an inadequate response to a failed system that has never been a priority for our government to fix. However, the evolution of the atrocities has grown worse, not better, and that direction from the current occupant of the White House has been intentional. An intentional and concentrated effort not only to separate children from their parents but a message that THEY are different from us.
President Trump’s policies have made it abundantly clear, children from other countries whose families may be seeking refuge from unimaginable situations are not worthy of decency. Not worthy of a better life. Not worthy of being allowed the opportunity to dream, to learn, to grow, and to be loved. They are treated like an infestation that needs to be eliminated. And so, the government locks them up in a cage, waiting to figure out the best way to discard them. We have the most powerful government in the world, or at least it purports to be. But with power comes accountability, responsibility, empathy, and critical thinking. None of which have been applied to this crisis.
While the blatant incompetence dealing with this issue didn’t begin with the Trump Administration, it sure as hell got a whole lot worse. Beginning in April of 2018, the “Zero
Tolerance” policy directed U.S. prosecutors to criminally charge everyone who crossed the border without inspection. If you’ve ever doubted the calculated nature of this policy; if you’ve ever assumed these children were simply victims of tragic circumstances, don’t. The Department of Justice Inspector General’s Report clearly stated it. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the government’s intentions abundantly clear when he said, “We need to take away children,”, followed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s proclamation that there is “no age limit” in regards to children being ripped from their parents. The report further stated Sessions and Rosenstein were a “driving force” behind the policy. Once this policy was put into place, many parents were deported to their countries of origin, mostly to the “Northern Triangle” region, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. But many of the children remained here. Why? Could there be any justification for this antiquated, self-serving policy?
Trump scrapped the policy in June 2018 after a massive public outcry. A fear of being disliked disguised as a stroke of conscience. But the situation continued to decline. Separations continued under other policies. Approximately 1,200 children were taken from their parents AFTER the administration committed to changing course. The reasons given? Doubt regarding the familial relationship between a child and his/her parent or if the accompanying adult had a criminal record which included minor violations, either in the U.S. or in their country of origin. An example of a minor violation would be a six-day jail sentence for the destruction of property worth $5. That is all these children are worth? Parents who have repeatedly abused their children have a better chance of keeping their custodial rights.
If the Government couldn’t use policy to enforce separations, it used loopholes. The law clearly states there is a 72- hour legal limit on initial custody in CBP (Customs and Border Enforcement) for unaccompanied children. After those 3 days are up, the children are then supposed to be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which reports to the Department of Health and Human Services. That limit is set by the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. Seems like a logical system? Until you realize it’s not being enforced. The United States is now detaining thousands of children in any given week. That 72-hour rule has been consistently violated for years. Instead of DHHS overseeing the well-being of these children, they are being housed at detention centers around the country. Let that word sink in for a moment because it is as horrific as it sounds. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security’s own inspection report issued in 2019 cited lengthy stays and overcrowding, as well as “limited access” to a change of clothes and hot meals, and children kept in “cells” for unacceptable lengths of time.
The US held a record number of children, 69,550, in 2019. That is enough children, including infants and toddlers, to fill a sports stadium. Of those tens of thousands of children, some were deported and some were reunited with family in the U.S. At last check, approximately 4,000 were still in the custody of the United States government with an unacceptable number in detention centers. More and more kids continue to endure an unthinkable journey to the U.S. to flee the terror, abuse, and violence in their home countries, only to find another version of hell on the other side of the border.
WHAT’S THE PLAY?
Here’s where the motivation starts to rear its ugly head. Many of these sites are being run by private prison contractors who receive billions of dollars in government money. The use of these
contractors isn’t new, but it has exploded in the last four years with the addition of 24 facilities. USA Today did a comprehensive report in December of 2019. These companies have generated record-setting profits while making massive political donations. They contributed $1.9 million dollars in 2019 to predominantly Republican causes according to the Center for Responsive Policies. There were $969,000 in contributions to President Trump over the course of three years. Millions more have been spent in lobbying efforts. In contrast, during the eight years of the Obama administration, there were a total of $38,000 in political contributions. When the Federal Government cries broke after receiving requests to fund education, fix dilapidated inner city schools, health care, or loans for small business owners who have suffered terribly as the result of the pandemic, keep in mind ICE spent $3.5 billion dollars on these detention centers in 2019.
Yes, billions of dollars have been allocated to jail children looking to escape atrocities in their homeland, just to discover many of the powers that be here are just better at covering them up. There has been no oversight at the locations and zero transparency regarding who exactly is caring for these children. We don’t know if they have the necessary training or have passed background checks. These are children we are talking about. Children. Have you ever been a volunteer soccer coach? Your screening process was likely more intense.
The United States of America has orphaned 545 children whose parents were deported. Apparently, many of these minors have been placed in foster care or with sponsors. How are they doing? We don’t know because ICE has not kept adequate records, so many of them have gone missing. The House Judiciary Committee issued a 550-page report confirming that the Trump Administration had “full knowledge that hundreds of children would likely be lost to their families forever” as a result of its 2018 “zero tolerance” policy.
GOVERNMENT APPROVED CHILD TRAFFICKING
In what is probably the most outrageous violation of the “72-hour rule,” under the guise of “public health” (which is a term they use loosely) our government has been shuttling children between hotels, sometimes for weeks and months at a time, while they await deportation. This new atrocity began in March after an order was issued establishing “rapid expulsion” rules. Homeland Security officials have insisted these measures are needed to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in detention centers and Border Patrol Stations. According to the Washington Post, between March and July of 2020, the government detained at least 577 minors in hotels. Of those, 473 were held for longer than 72 hours. Holding them longer without turning them over to Health and Human Services requires the government to report those cases. Because the hotels exist outside the formal detention system, they are not subject to policies designed to prevent abuse in federal custody. They also aren’t subject to policies requiring detainees to be provided access to phones, healthy food, and medical and mental health care. Lawyers and advocates have no way of finding them nor monitoring their well- being. The government has made these children ghosts.
There has been internal pushback. Federal Judge Dolly Gee, who oversees the court managed rules that govern the detention of minors known as the Flores Settlement, found the Trump administration failed to establish a public health justification for keeping these children in hotels. She further noted that because the hotels are open to the public, they are not a safe place to
prevent infection from COVID-19. In her court order, the judge stated the administration “Cannot seriously argue in good faith that flouting their contractual obligation to place minors in licensed programs is necessary to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.” The children are watched over by contractors who are essentially overpaid, underqualified babysitters. We know nothing about their background but rest assured, they receive a total of TWO DAYS of training! The judge ordered the practice to stop in September of 2020. However, searching for these children is virtually impossible because they have not been assigned identification numbers they would normally receive in the federal detention system. Ghosts.
Back to the people running these facilities. It appears the administration mainly uses MVM Inc., a private corporation known mostly as a transportation and security company, to detain migrant children and families. It was started in the late 1970s by three former Secret Service agents, according to a New York Times report from August 16, 2020. The Times also reported the company contracts with just about every federal agency involved in immigration, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. MVM does not appear to have experience detaining migrant children, let alone experience with child development or child trauma, although their website states they provide “transportation and care for vulnerable populations.” The company was criticized in 2018 for detaining children in a vacant office park in Phoenix. Clearly a very child centric operation.
What does this all mean? I know these aren’t your children but they are someone’s children. The result of these practices will have lifelong effects not just on the individuals themselves, but on society and in turn, you.
Pediatric experts, including doctors and child psychologists, have repeatedly said, children in detention suffer repeated traumas. The processing stations where they are first separated from their parents are nightmarish. Not to mention, they are a brick and mortar representation of the most tragic period in these kids’ lives. They are not equipped to handle children who arrive at
our border already anguished from the abuse and violence experienced in their home countries. After surviving a perilous journey to get here, the last place they should be is a freezing cold cell or a warehouse that is filled with dirty cages, inadequate staff, food, blankets, or even toothbrushes. All of this because as a government attorney tried to argue in court, toiletries “aren’t essential” items.
We are talking about trauma on top of trauma leading to significant emotional and mental health issues. In addition, they are being kept in facilities where HHS’s own Inspector General found the government regularly failed to screen the clinicians and caseworkers who care for these children. At least 11 facilities were found to have allowed employees to work without any proof they completed the FBI criminal background check required for all facilities overseeing minors. If this were an American foster care facility, their operational license would be in jeopardy and there would be public outrage. But the detention centers just keep getting more government money.
If you choose to turn a blind eye to the impact these policies have on children, I doubt you will be as willing to do the same for the impact it may have on our country or your neighborhood. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest
investigations of its kind. It was conducted in California from 1995-1997 and examined child abuse and household dysfunction and how each impacted the adult lives of children. The study concluded multiple ACEs significantly increased the likelihood of (but not limited to) depression, anxiety and substance abuse. According to the ACE, adults with four or more adverse childhood experiences, have higher rates of substance abuse, suicide attempts and mental health conditions. I’d say these children have experienced more than four of these traumas. What does this mean? We are creating non-functioning adults who will potentially require therapy, medical, and addiction intervention instead of growing into productive members of society. This problem belongs to all of us.
SOLUTIONS ARE WITHIN REACH
Simply being mortified by what is happening won’t solve the problem. There are already programs in 27 states around the country where private foster care agencies are placing unaccompanied refugee minors in foster care. They have been doing this work for decades. Whether the children in detention are going to stay in the U.S. or be deported, they should be placed in foster care. While not perfect, it is better than a “facility” which functions more like a prison.
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There is a system in place but it needs to be tweaked. HHS and the Office of Refugee Resettlement are already placing kids in foster programs. These are the offices responsible for the oversight of unaccompanied refugee minors. But the occupants and their counterparts need more advocate training, more resources and more services. This CAN and MUST be done.
There needs to be an investigation, likely a criminal one, of exactly what happened here because there also needs to be a reckoning. I suspect there have been, at a minimum, violations of child protective services laws in numerous states. People committing those violations should not have access to children, ever, and no more government contracts.
Once the children are in foster care, they fall under the same child protective services laws as their American counterparts who are in government-run foster care programs. Each state has its own set of standards. Expanding the current foster care system is more humane and cost effective. For children not yet granted asylum or special immigrant juvenile status, there can be a separate arm of the same foster care programs. They would still be placed in foster care pending the outcome of their immigration cases.
Lastly, the Government needs to establish regional immigration courts in each state, specifically designated to handle only juvenile cases so the process isn’t stalled by bureaucratic red tape and every one of these children should have counsel.
Demand our leaders to change course. Demand the Biden/Harris Administration create a special investigative counsel to tackle the problem, call out the players, and ensure we are people who extend decency for those who cannot take care of themselves. There are practical, affordable solutions to this crisis. As tempting as it may be, money should not be the motivating factor here. Protecting and saving the lives of innocent children should. This is the United States of America.
A country that prides itself on freedom and opportunity, not a nation that discards human beings because we can’t make humane practices a political priority.