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The United States ended orphanages in the 1960s. We did so because there is no such thing as a "good" orphanage. Children are not to be institutionalized. It is established science that children are best cared for by families, whether their own, adopted or in foster care. It is stunning that the "Make America Great Again" siren call is creating orphanages on our southern border, a crime against humanity, perpetrated for misguided political purposes.
Two separate United Nations delegations recently visited the United States to observe our treatment of children at the border. These very visits are a heartbreaking twist on how our country, which once set the gold standard for human rights, is now being investigated for violations. It is highly unusual for a country that demands others meet international obligations fails to live up to that very standard, noted Georgette Gagnon, director of field operations for the U.N. Human Rights Office. But here we are, living in a time when the United States, acting like Romania’s Ceausescu, has denied at least 10 requests from the United Nations to observe how children are treated behind closed doors.
Despite being denied direct access, the U.N. delegates saw enough to be “shocked.” Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. human rights chief, former president of Chile and pediatrician, unequivocally condemned the United States for detaining children and separating families as “cruel and inhumane treatment prohibited in international law.”
The U.N. condemnation is correct. There are at least 2,000 children housed in Border Patrol stations. These children are without medical care, receive only one meal a day, are not given showers and soap and do not get exercise or play in sunshine. Older children are holding toddlers and babies because adults are not. And these are the lucky ones. The government’s own watchdog reported credible allegations of guards sexually assaulting the children.
There is also a record-setting 13,200 kids -- up from 3,000 in 2016 -- in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The Trump administration discontinued arts, crafts, soccer, classes and legal representation for these kids. And these facilities are not staffed with teachers or childcare workers. Rather, for-profit companies determine the care given and they have been known to forcibly drug children to keep them sedated.
The mistreatment does not arise from lack of money. Harming children is apparently a lucrative business. At least six officials from Southwest Key, which is somehow classified as a nonprofit that runs a number of these shelters, earned more than $1 million a year warehousing children in this manner.
And this mistreatment is having dire consequences. Since 2016, at least seven children have died in immigration detention centers. From 2006 to 2016, not a single death occurred.
There is no practical reason for the United States to be doing this. The influx of children is not an act of God.
Rather, the Border Patrol stations are now overcrowded because Trump never, in fact, ended the family separation policy. The Border Patrol quietly continues to take away children from parents and other family members.
And of the 13,000 kids in ORR custody, the majority have family members in the U.S. who could care for them. But the Trump administration instituted mandatory FBI background checks on all family members and those who live with them. These checks delay reunification and have led ICE to arrest over 170 guardians who were going to pick up their children for being without status.
These background checks on family members are not made in good faith. The Trump administration waived those same checks for employees of the private facilities and for new hires to the Border Patrol, which in part, no doubt, accounts for more than 4,500 claims of sexual abuse arising in these immigration detention centers in the past four years alone.
Why, then, is our country doing this? Former DHS Secretary John Kelly explained that family separation and — now, apparently — systematic child abuse are part of a desire to “deter” immigrants from coming to the U.S.
But this policy is ineffective. If a woman fled a burning house, asked for help from a neighbor and the neighbor responded by kidnapping and torturing her child, her neighbor is a sadistic criminal. The house is still on fire, causing others to continue to flee.
It is also illegal. In 2015, a federal court enjoined the federal government from using the immigration detention to deter families from seeking asylum — so yes, this is another court order that this administration ignores.
And morally, the policy is a stain on our standing. Instead of the country that helped champion international human rights, we are in the company of Boko Haram, another group that also kidnaps, imprisons and rapes children for political purposes.
So what can be done? What little information we have about these facilities is from the court proceedings whereby bands of lawyers are fiercely seeking justice. Together Rising raised $2 million, which went to the lawyers monitoring how our government cares for migrant children in its custody. Groups like Al Otro Lado, RAICES and the Florence Project are providing legal services to these children and their parents. The Innovation Law Lab, American Immigration Council and ACLU are among those launching in creative litigation to curtail abusive conditions facing asylum seekers.
Beyond donations, stopping one own’s employer from complicit participation in caging children is neither naïve nor ineffectual. It was the flight attendants who stopped the airlines from transporting separated children.
It may seem small — protests, vigils and small money donations are like drops of rain, soft and unobtrusive. But when these drops combine, water is the only force that can carve out valleys and level mountains. Keep in mind, when first ordering the end to the family separation policy, a federal judge explained that the government violates the Constitution when its actions “shock the conscience,” which was met by national protests condemning the family separations.
So until we have a Congress that defunds cages for children (instead of giving $4.6 billion more without any strings attached to the agencies that harm children without shame or remorse), until we have an administration that greets asylum-seekers with the protections promised under our laws instead of calculated cruelty, each and every one of us can take a small daily action to restore the humanity our government policies currently lack.
Our country has the history and capacity to treat immigrant children humanely. It will be a test for our collective morality on whether we do so again.
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