State-Sponsored Child Abuse is Happening Right Under Our Noses

It came to the nation’s attention last week that thousands of refugee children are being held in dire conditions in detention centers along the southern border. While most of us could’ve guessed and definitely suspected that this was the case, we now have definitive proof including several depositions by children confined at a detention center in Clint, Texas. 

Conditions include infants who are being cared for by unrelated children as young as seven, babies covered in their own bodily fluids, children packed so tightly into cages (yes, cages) that they can’t all lay down to sleep on the concrete floor at the same time.

PETA literally has whole campaigns against this when farmers do this to chickens, but these are US government officials doing it to young children.

When one of these 300 unaccompanied minors would complain of being ill, or of caring for an infant that was ill, they were met with disregard from the detention center staff. Most have not showered since they arrived at the facility and are without soap for even basic hygiene. 

There have been countless comparisons to the Nazi concentration camps in the very country whose 9th inning effort helped to avert complete world domination by the Nazis. Americans often pat themselves on the back for ending WWII, but if family separation policies and detention centers filled with sick, cold, malnourished, dirty refugee children aren’t causing us to demand immediate action then perhaps we are no better than the silent majority of Nazi Germany. 

With over 100,000 people making their way to our southern border every month, more federal resources must be allocated to sustaining acceptable conditions. To that end, Congress has passed emergency legislation that awaits Trump’s signature. $2.9 billion is going directly to aid children in these odious facilities, while $1.3 billion is going to Homeland Security ($200 million of which is earmarked for Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE). The bill which originated in the Senate allows Congress members to visit the facilities with a full two days notice, the House bill which did not pass, however, would have allowed them to show up unannounced.

While funding will help alleviate the inhumane conditions that these children are currently undergoing, it may only slightly lessen the trauma they are experiencing. Our country literally has thousands of children locked in cages most of the day, every day, for months on end. 

Marianne Williamson, a presidential candidate, stated in a recent debate: “What Donald Trump has done to these children… it is kidnapping. If you forcibly take a child from their parents’ arms, and if you take a lot of children and you put them in a detainment center, thus inflicting chronic trauma upon them, that’s called child abuse. This is collective child abuse. And if your government does it, that doesn’t make it less of a crime. These are state-sponsored crimes.”

The Flores Act, established in 1997, requires the federal government to release unaccompanied minors to relatives in the US within 20 days during times when there is a high influx of children coming to the border. With the backlog of so many children, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has not been able to keep up with the demand to process these cases and lawyers have filed suit against the government on behalf of the children.

This is not the first time the Flores Act has been used to challenge conditions in our refugee and migrant detention centers. In 2015 Doe v. Nielsen (formerly Doe v. Kelly) claimed the exact same circumstances as the Clint facility. Let’s remember that, in 2015, these detention centers were under the authority of the Obama Administration. Plaintiffs, in that case, asserted the detention centers were freezing, and no one had blankets, soap, showers, or adequate meals. So this is not just a problem instigated by the Trump Administration, but a significant issue relating to the standard operating procedures and culture of the US Customs and Border Patrol. 

An envoy of Congressional leaders including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D, NY), Joaquin Castro (D, TX ), Veronica Escobar (D, TX), and Ayanna Pressley (D, MA) visited two detention centers on Monday prompting a slew of horrifically sexist, racist, and pornographic memes on a secret Facebook group made up of 9,500 current and former CBP agents called I’m 10-15. The group also included xenophobic and sadistic comments about detained migrants. 

The culture of this arm of the United States government is known for its bigotry and has the lowest gender diversity of any federal law enforcement agency with just 5% of its roughly 20,000 agents identifying as anything other than male. (That beats even the Marines with women making up only 8% of their force.)

It’s important to understand that the mistreatment of migrants and refugees span both political parties. It’s outrageous and needs to be rectified immediately, but these policies that blatantly disregard human health and safety have been standard operating procedures of the US Border Patrol for years. So even if Trump passes Congress’s bill, how significantly will these conditions improve? How can we be sure this arm of our government will address its xenophobic members and treat thousands of refugees with respect and human decency? Requiring this comes back to being able to enforce the Flores Act in these facilities. 

It’s hard to fully pinpoint this state-sponsored child abuse when Congresspeople are expected to give two days notice before arriving. It is one thing to have laws on the books requiring the government to uphold specific standards, and it’s another to actually enforce them. The Civil Rights Act which passed in 1964, for example, outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, or national origin. But to actually force the government to uphold the dignity, and the physical and mental health of migrant and refugee children (some as young as two months old), there must be momentous social pressure. 

We must hold large demonstrations against the overwhelming and life-altering trauma that our government is perpetuating in thousands of young, unaccompanied children. We must commit to recognizing that these children deserve fundamental human rights, a supportive and nurturing space while away from their families, and access to emotional support and physicians. We must demand outside review councils on these facilities that may be allowed in at any time to inspect the conditions in which refugees and migrants are held. The Flores Act lays this all out and is being wholly ignored by these facilities. 

It is up to the American public to force the hand of the government to significantly improve conditions immediately. The people of Hong Kong just showed us how it’s done. We have to come out in droves, in communities all around the country. We have to show up for these children. Anything else and we’re no better than those who stood silently and watched as the Nazis denied millions the right to life and liberty. 

This is not the America I want to live in. CPB is not reflecting the America that I believe we can be. We’re far from a place where everyone is equal under the law, and the only way that happens is if we demand it… perpetually. 

Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues. 

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