The testimonies are jarring.
There is no doubt that the ongoing migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is a difficult problem to solve. How to handle a large influx of people arriving at our doorstep and how to expediently process increasing asylum claims is a big question with many unclear answers.
But there's one thing we should be crystal clear about. Inhumanity should have no place in our immigration policies, and cruelty toward children should never be tolerated, period. And yet, that's exactly what we are seeing in our detention facilities.
Nineteen U.S. states have filed a joint lawsuit alleging inhumane conditions in U.S. immigration detention centers, specifically when it comes to children. The lawsuit includes first-hand accounts from detainees ages 12 to 17 describing how they were held in crowded cells without enough room to lie down and no privacy to use the toilet. They said the facilities were kept at frigid temperatures, and when someone complained, guards lowered the temperature further. Those who were lucky enough to be given aluminum blankets had them taken away at 4 a.m., and some had only the bare, cold floor to sleep on. They said guards woke the children in the middle of the night for "roll calls," yelled or cursed at kids who cried, and took some kids away to stay in dark rooms by themselves overnight. They said the food they were given was sometimes still frozen or smelled or tasted "off."
Overcrowding is a problematic but understandable reality considering the large numbers of migrants we're seeing. However, there is no excuse for some of the actions and conditions these children described.
Turning the air conditioning up so high as to be torturous, and turning it up even higher when detainees complain? Not okay.
Taking away children's sweaters or other warm clothing and then forcing them to sleep on a bare floor in freezing cold conditions? Not okay.
(Considering how some Americans like to complain about wasting taxpayer money on immigrants, I'm surprised there's not more uproar about this. Air conditioning is expensive. It must be costing a fortune to keep detention facilities at ridiculously cold temps at the hot Mexico border. Why is that necessary?)
Keeping the lights on all night long and disrupting the little amounts of sleep these kids are getting? Not okay. (Sleep deprivation is a form of torture for a reason.)
Not allowing a menstruating girl to shower for 10 days when there are showers available? Only allowing a menstruating girl one sanitary pad per day, even when she's bled through it, her underwear, and her clothing? Not okay.
Yelling and swearing at scared little kids for crying? Not okay.
Not providing enough food and water and then throwing food on the floor for children to fight over? So. Not. Okay.
How is it that we can afford to keep the lights on at all hours, but can't afford to provide kids with toothbrushes or soap or sanitary pads? How is it that we can keep the air conditioning blasting on high all day and night, but can't provide adequate water and decent food?
Check out some of the excerpts from the sworn statement of Alma Poletti, Investigation Supervisor for the Washington State Attorney General's Office, describing what the children reported.
The freezing conditions made worse when someone complained:
"Children described these facilities as rooms of different sizes with no windows to the outside and where lights were kept on 24-hours per day. Most of the children reported these detention facilities were freezing, kept at extremely cold temperatures. Children were only given 'aluminum' blankets to keep themselves warm. Some of them had sweaters or spare clothes with them when they arrived at the detention facility, but these were confiscated by the immigration officers (the children referred to them as 'officers' or 'guards') and they were never returned to them even if a child asked for warm clothes or additional blankets. One girl recalled instances when mothers who were detained with their children complained to the officers about the cold temperatures because their kids were getting sick. An officer would then grab the air-conditioner remote. After that, the room would get colder, as if the officer had been annoyed by the request and decided to lower the temperature even further."
Purposeful sleep deprivation:
Some of the children reported that guards would interrupt the little rest they had, waking them up in the middle of the night for roll call, or to put out food. Children reported feeling like there was no need for the guards to wake them up in the middle of the night and that officers were doing it on purpose to intentionally disrupt their sleep. One girl said guards would take away their 'aluminum' blankets every morning at 4 a.m. The blankets were the only thing they had to keep themselves warm in the freezing facility, so kids wanted to keep them, but would be yelled at by the guards when they asked if they could have the blankets back."
Children who cried being put into isolation in a dark room:
"If the children would not stop crying, a guard would open the door, ask the crying child to come to the door, and then threaten them. The 16-year old girl heard guards tell children that if they did not stop crying, they would be 'left in a corner' with no one to help them, or that they would be 'sent to a dark room.' Over the ten days this girl was detained, she saw three children taken away only to return the next day; when they got back they said they had been kept in a dark room alone. One six-year old boy was taken to the dark room because he accidentally clogged the toilet with toilet paper."
Guards yelling and swearing at a 7-year-old for crying:
"A different girl remembers that two guards started cursing at a seven-year old girl with horrible words that she refused to repeat to interviewers. The guards were yelling and swearing at the younger girl because she would not stop crying."
That's only a taste of what's in Poletti's testimony. The whole thing is worth a read.
No one expects immigration processes to be perfect, but we absolutely should expect our government to be humane. How we treat fellow human beings isn't about political ideologies, but about basic human decency. There is no excuse for mistreating children, especially those who are already scared and confused. There's no excuse for wasting electricity on excessive air conditioning and 24/7 lights while denying children access to basic hygiene. It's not necessary; it's cruel.
No matter what our stance is on immigration, no matter what we think needs to be done about it, we should all be able to agree that cruelty to children is not okay. We must maintain a basic level of humanity and have lines that we simply refuse to cross as we grapple with our immigration questions. Morally and ethically, subjecting children to this kind of treatment when we have the ability to choose otherwise is unconscionable.
Legally, it's also unacceptable—we've created laws and regulations to avoid keeping children in such conditions and to avoid detaining them for too long. Hence this lawsuit.
We cannot allow state-sanctioned cruelty to children—any children—to go unchecked in our name.
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