An overwhelming majority of Americans from all political parties want to see the entire range of minors in the so-called child detention camps—from infants in their first year of life to seventeen year-olds in those facilities— better cared for, and more quickly reunited with their parents, wherever they may be. However, our country seems divided about what is actually happening in those facilities—from infants in their first year of life to seventeen year-olds in those (often makeshift) facilities that are strewn along the U.S./Mexico border.
Even Southwest Key –the corporation which runs some of the facilities— “does not support separating families at the border…. We believe keeping families together is better for the children, parents and our communities, and we remain committed to providing compassionate care and reunification.”
Nevertheless, on June 19, 2018, Attorney General Sessions claimed that the 2322 detained minors separated from their families have not been disadvantaged by his policies and “are well cared for… In fact, they get better care than a lot of American kids do,” he wrote in USA Today. “They are provided plenty of food, education in their language, health and dental care, and transported to their destination city — all at taxpayer expense.”
Did Sessions know that at least than two months before the “baby camp crisis” peaked, the American Academy of Pediatrics was already warning” that its child health care professionals had “great concern about the conditions in which the children are detained and the support services they are provided,” for they are “conditions which can harm or traumatize them.” The Academy determined that most of the detention camps that are holding unaccompanied children–facilities which are run on contract for the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement – “do not meet the basic standards for the care of children.” These health care professionals were not playing some blame game, pitting Trump-era policies against Obama-era policies; they were simply urging full adherence to well-established principles of healthful childcare, no matter what administration happened to be managing it.
But Sessions chose not to heed such warnings, most of which have come from bipartisan constituencies. Since then, CNN has found additional evidence of physical, social and emotional abuse of children in facilities are overloaded and at full capacity, including the use of handcuffs, psychoactive drugs, sedatives, and assaults. Simultaneously, Sara Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute independently confirmed that the unaccompanied infants in these baby detention camps even “need diapers, formula and bottles. We’re talking about basic needs for the care of children.” The basic need for the many native, monolingual children to speak to someone in their own indigenous language is also not being met.
After visiting the Southwest Key child detention center in Tucson, Congressman Raul Grijalva noted that the children there were not let outside to play during much of the year. This practice essentially deprives the children of any contact with nature, outdoor play to maintain physical fitness or even fresh air necessary to control allergies and other illnesses. The feeling of being “caged in” has been reported by many of the older children.
We have now received more than a months-worth of such solid documentation by our elected members of Congress, by pediatricians and human rights lawyers, and by facilities employees themselves (some of whom have quit or leaked photos of such abuse to the outside world). It appears that the federal government will miss its July 26 court-ordered deadline to reunite all unaccompanied children with their families, so at least children will have to endure such conditions for even longer.
Why then, are we still hearing voices from Washington D.C. down to those in border communities still pretend that the separation of families and the poor conditions for care in below-standard facilities is still permissible? Why are we hearing rank-and-file Customs and Border Protection patrolmen officers like John Gird and once-elected officials like former Patagonia Mayor Ike Isaakson who seem to echo Session’s false claims? These men are well-intentioned individuals who have contributed greatly to their communities, so we must ask why are they not reviewing the wide gamut of information that has posed serious questions about the care of thousands of immigrant children under governmental custody.
In early July, Gird told me “there’s a lot of misinformation out there… The children who are in those facilities are living under better conditions than they did in Central America. They lived in poverty there, and the gangs extorted money from their parents or tried to engage the teenagers with drugs and violence.” Former Mayor Isakson says that “you can bet the children are better cared for here [in the facilities]. Parents in Central America let hundreds of youth leave home to come up here unaccompanied, of took them to the border and then abandoned them.”
Unfortunately, these are dubious claims that assume callous disregard for the health of the children by parents who themselves maybe under grave stress and fear of death. Among the fallacies in these statements men are 1) that the parents willingly “chose” to let their children leave, rather than being forced to get them out of the neighborhoods where they might be recruited into drug gangs, into sex trafficking traps, or killed; 2) that the parents themselves aren’t already dead, jailed or in hiding elsewhere; and 3) that the care of a child by his or her mother, father or grandparents is not of paramount importance to their physical, nutritional, emotional, spiritual and social health.
All of need to begin our public discussions about this crisis with more critical thinking and compassion about such issues, rather than responding with blame games or more recycling of the “urban folklore” on talk radio. This crisis was not “trumped” up by the media to unfairly blame the current president, nor were the policies and practices of the previous administration without flaws. Taking good care of children—any and all children—should not be a partisan issue. Let’s put these children’s welfare before our own ideologies.
-Gary Paul Nabhan