19 states are suing over 'cruel, inhumane, and illegal' conditions for detained children

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."

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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.

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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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Some 75 years ago, in bombed-out Frankfurt, Germany, a little girl named Marlene Mahta received a sign of hope in the midst of squalor, homelessness and starvation. A CARE Package containing soap, milk powder, flour, blankets and other necessities provided a lifeline through the contributions of average American families. There were even luxuries like chocolate bars.

World War II may have ended, but its devastation lingered. Between 35 and 60 million people died. Whole cities had been destroyed, the countryside was charred and burned, and at least 60 million European civilians had been made homeless. Hunger remained an issue for many families for years to come. In the face of this devastation, 22 American organizations decided to come together and do something about it: creating CARE Packages for survivors.

"What affected me… was hearing that these were gifts from average American people," remembers Mahta, who, in those desperate days, found herself picking through garbage cans to find leftover field rations and MREs to eat. Inspired by the unexpected kindness, Mahta eventually learned English and emigrated to the U.S.

"I wanted to be like those wonderful, generous people," she says.

The postwar Marshall Plan era was a time of "great moral clarity," says Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE, the global anti-poverty organization that emerged from those simple beginnings. "The CARE Package itself – in its simplicity and directness – continues to guide CARE's operational faith in the enduring power of local leadership – of simply giving people the opportunity to support their families and then their communities."

Each CARE Package contained rations that had once been reserved for soldiers, but were now being redirected to civilians who had suffered as a result of the conflict. The packages cost $10 to send, and they were guaranteed to arrive at their destination within four months.

Thousands of Americans, including President Harry S. Truman, got involved, and on May 11, 1946, the first 15,000 packages were sent to Le Havre in France, a port badly battered during the war.

Thousands of additional CARE Packages soon followed. At first packages were sent to specific recipients, but over time donations came in for anyone in need. When war rations ran out American companies began donating food. Later, carpentry tools, blankets, clothes, books, school supplies, and medicine were included.

Before long, the CARE Packages were going to other communities in need around the world, including Asia and Latin America. Ultimately, CARE delivered packages to 100 million families around the world.

The original CARE Packages were phased out in the late 1960s, though they were revived when specific needs arose, such as when former Soviet Union republics needed relief, or after the Bosnian War. Meanwhile, CARE transformed. Now, instead of physical boxes, it invests in programs for sustainable change, such as setting up nutrition centers, Village Savings and Loan Associations, educational programs, agroforestry initiatives, and much more.

But, with a pandemic ravaging populations around the world, CARE is bringing back its original CARE packages to support the critical basic needs of our global neighbors. And for the first time, they're also delivering CARE packages here at home in the United States to communities in need.

Community leaders like Janice Dixon are on the front lines of that effort. Dixon, president and CEO of Community Outreach in Action in Jonesboro, Ga., now sends up to 80 CARE packages each week to those in need due to COVID-19. Food pantries have been available, she notes, but they've been difficult to access for those without cars, and public transportation is spotty in suburban Atlanta.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook," says Dixon. For example, one of those calls was from a senior diabetic, she remembers, who faced an impossible choice, but was able to purchase medicine because food was being provided by CARE.

Today, CARE is sending new packages with financial support and messages of hope to frontline medical workers, caregivers, essential workers, and individuals in need in more than 60 countries, including the U.S. Anyone can now go to carepackage.org to send targeted help around the world. Packages focus on helping vaccines reach people more quickly, tackling food insecurity, educational disparities, global poverty, and domestic violence, as well as providing hygiene kits to those in need.

From the very beginning, CARE received the support of presidents, with Hollywood luminaries like Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman also adding their voices. At An Evening With CARE, happening this Tuesday, May 11, notable names will turn out again as the organization celebrates the 75th Anniversary of the CARE Package and the exciting, meaningful work that lies ahead. The event will be hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and attended by former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, as well as Angela Merkel, Iman, Jewel, Michelle Williams, Katherine McPhee-Foster, Betty Who and others. Please RSVP now for this can't-miss opportunity.

On February 19, 2020, a group of outdoor adventurists took a 25-day rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. During the trip, they had no cell service and no contact with the outside world. When they ended they ended their journey on March 14, the man who pulled them ashore asked if they had been in touch with anyone else. When the rafters said no, the man sighed, then launched into an explanation of how the globe had been gripped by the coronavirus pandemic and everything had come to a screeching halt.

The rafters listened with bewilderment as they were told about toilet paper shortages and the NBA season being canceled and everyone being asked to stay at home. One of the river guides, who had done these kinds of off-grid excursions multiple times, said that they'd often joke about coming back to a completely different world—it had just never actually happened before.

The rafters' story was shared in the New York Times last spring, but they're not the only ones to have had such an experience.

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Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash
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The global eradication of smallpox in 1980 is one of international public health's greatest successes. But in 1966, seven years after the World Health Organization announced a plan to rid the world of the disease, smallpox was still widespread. The culprits? A lack of funds, personnel and vaccine supply.

Meanwhile, outbreaks across South America, Africa, and Asia continued, as the highly contagious virus continued to kill three out of every 10 people who caught it, while leaving many survivors disfigured. It took a renewed commitment of resources from wealthy nations to fulfill the promise made in 1959.

Forty-one years later, although we face a different virus, the potential for vast destruction is just as great, and the challenges of funding, personnel and supply are still with us, along with last-mile distribution. Today, while 30% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, with numbers rising every day, there is an overwhelming gap between wealthy countries and the rest of the world. It's becoming evident that the impact on the countries getting left behind will eventually boomerang back to affect us all.

Photo by ismail mohamed - SoviLe on Unsplash

The international nonprofit CARE recently released a policy paper that lays out the case for U.S. investment in a worldwide vaccination campaign. Founded 75 years ago, CARE works in over 100 countries and reaches more than 90 million people around the world through multiple humanitarian aid programs. Of note is the organization's worldwide reputation for its unshakeable commitment to the dignity of people; they're known for working hand-in-hand with communities and hold themselves to a high standard of accountability.

"As we enter into our second year of living with COVID-19, it has become painfully clear that the safety of any person depends on the global community's ability to protect every person," says Michelle Nunn, CARE USA's president and CEO. "While wealthy nations have begun inoculating their populations, new devastatingly lethal variants of the virus continue to emerge in countries like India, South Africa and Brazil. If vaccinations don't effectively reach lower-income countries now, the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be catastrophic."

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