Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Tag:

What Child Detentions At The Border Are Telling Us

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Grimms’ fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. Terrified by cruel conditions at home, the brother and sister flee, winding their way, hungry and scared, through unknown woods. There, they encounter an old woman who lures them in with promises of safety. Instead, she locks one of them in a cage and turns the other into a servant, as she prepares to devour them both.

Written in nineteenth-century Germany, it should resonate eerily in today’s America. In place of Hansel and Gretel, we would, of course, have to focus on girls and boys by the hundreds fleeing cruelty and hunger in Central America, believing that they will find a better life in the United States, only to be thrown into cages by forces far more powerful and agents much crueler than that wicked old woman. In the story, there are no politics; there is only good and bad, right and wrong.

Rather than, as in that fairy tale, register the suffering involved in the captivity and punishment of those children at the U.S.-Mexican border, the administration has chosen a full-bore defense of its policies and so has taken a giant step in a larger mission: redefining (or more precisely trying to abolish) the very idea of human rights as a part of this country’s identity.

This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left no doubt: The reality of those children locked in cages, deprived of the most basic needs, and brazenly abused by the administration he works for has been an essential part of the Trump team’s determination to abandon human rights more generally. That willingness to leave children unprotected is part of a far larger message, not merely an unfortunate byproduct of ill-thought out and clumsy actions by an overwhelmed border police force.

Children in Detention Camps

The story of the children at the border is indeed gruesome. The United States has long had migrants pushing at its southern border, often in larger numbers than at present. In fact, since the 1980s, the numbers crossing that border exceeded one million in 19 different years. While U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to estimate that current immigration rates are on track to exceed one million by September, many other experts don’t think it will even happen this year.

What’s genuinely new with the current border crossings is the number of children among the migrants. According to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan’s sobering recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, 72 percent of all border enforcement actions in May were associated with unaccompanied children and family units. And while last month the government officially stopped its cruel policy of separating families, leaving many of those children (even toddlers and babies) alone in custody, Vox reports that “at any given time, for the past several weeks, more than 2,000 children have been held in the custody of U.S. Border Patrol without their parents.”

The conditions in the camps, strewn along the U.S. borderlands from Arizona to Texas, are shameful and fall most harshly on those very children. A recent Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report, issued in redacted form just days before the July 4th holiday celebrating the birth of this country as a beacon of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” described the staggering squalor and danger at such confinement facilities. There, children were often deprived of changes of clothes, beds, hot meals, toothbrushes, soap, showers, even adequate medical attention. Other eyewitness accounts have provided graphic details on the nature and scale of the deprivation, showing us children in soiled diapers, living with the stench of urine, sleeping on concrete floors, many weeping. On the somewhat more civilized floor of the Senate, members were told of children sleeping outside, exposed to the elements, and of the spoiled food at the camps.

Add to this the emotional toll that family separations have wrought on thousands of young people, as a new report issued by the House of Representatives Oversight Committee reveals and as others have documented. An El Paso immigration lawyer visiting one facility, for instance, described seeing a young boy who had scratched his own face until it bled. There are first-hand accounts by visitors to the camps of children trying to choke themselves with the lanyards from their own identification cards and others who dreamed about escaping by jumping out of windows high above the ground.

No wonder at least seven children have died while in such circumstances and many more are suffering from lice, scabies, chickenpox, and other afflictions. Yet when doctors from the American Association of Pediatricians traveled to the camps to offer their help, their services were refused. Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, herself a pediatrician, has labeled the situation of the migrants “appalling” and noted that “several U.N. human rights bodies have found that the detention of migrant children may constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment that is prohibited by international law.” Others have been less circumspect, explicitly comparing the treatment of the children to torture.

It’s hard not to assume that, however overwhelmed CBP may be, at least some of this treatment is intentional. Why else turn away doctors offering help or refuse supplies of donated aid sent by worried citizens? Why arrest a humanitarian aid volunteer who gave food and water to two ill and desperate undocumented Central American migrants and tried to get them medical help? The administration acknowledges that the overall situation is dire, but its officials on the spot have basically thrown up their hands, complaining that they have been “overwhelmed” by the situation they created, are “not trained to separate children,” and are powerless to address the problem of scarce resources.

While those on the ground have claimed helplessness in the face of the challenge, the rest of the administration refuses even to admit to the appalling conditions. (“They are run beautifully,” said President Trump of the border facilities, blaming the Democrats for any problems there.) Instead, top officials have repeatedly called the disgracefully unacceptable acceptable. Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who bore responsibility for creating much of the mess, assured Congress that the children were “well taken care of,” claiming that “we have the highest standards.” Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions echoed her words. “The children,” he insisted, “are well cared for. In fact, they get better care than a lot of American kids do.”

In court, Department of Justice lawyer Sarah Fabian refused to admit that the absence of soap, a toothbrush, a bed, and sleep constituted unsafe and unsanitary conditions, the legal standards applying to the detention of migrant children. The U.S. Border Patrol chief for the El Paso region callously remarked, “Twenty years ago, we were lucky if we had juice and crackers for those in custody. Now, our stations are looking more like Walmarts, with diapers and baby formula and all kinds of things, like food and snacks.” Vice President Mike Pence highlighted the refusal to acknowledge reality recently by calling the two camps he visited, neither solely for children, but one housing families, examples of “compassionate care… care that every American would be proud of.”

Really? In whose world are filth, disease, and persistent emotional cruelty acceptable? In what America is the brutal incarceration of children not a violation of founding principles? In what America is rejecting the advances in protections that have been a hallmark of U.S. and international policy since the Second World War standard operating procedure? Since when do American officials just throw up their hands and declare defeat (as a kind of victory of cruelty) rather than muster their best talents, energies, and resources to confront such a problem? The answer, of course, is in Donald Trump’s America. And don’t for a moment think that this is just a matter of the piling up of unintended consequences. It’s not.

A Declaration of Inhuman Rights

Recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered some insights into the mindset of such an administration when it comes to the country’s longstanding embrace of the very idea of human rights. Soon after July 4th, he announced the creation of a new Commission on Unalienable Rights at the State Department. Its purpose, he claimed, was to rethink the spread of human rights protections as a part of American foreign policy. The very idea of rights, Pompeo insisted, had spun out of control. “Human-rights advocacy has lost its bearings and become more of an industry than a moral compass,” he said, wagging his finger at 70 years of history. “‘Rights talk’ has become a constant element of our domestic political discourse, without any serious effort to distinguish what rights mean and where they come from.”

Rather than expand rights further, he explained, the country would do well to return to (his idea of) the context of the founding fathers and explore just what they really meant in their classic writings. Essential to his goal, experts suggested, was rolling back abortion rights. A remarkable number of the commission members were, in fact, known for their anti-abortion positions and this should have surprised no one, since the State Department had already withdrawn all health assistance from international organizations that offer abortion counseling and care. In doing so, it expanded what, in administrations, were more modest restrictions on abortion-related care. Striking as such a global anti-abortion-rights position might be, however, Pompeo’s urge seems far grander. His goal is evidently to unilaterally reject the evolution of human rights that has prominently defined the country since the post-World War Two era, and that has been an essential piece of American democratic rhetoric since its founding.

To begin the process, Pompeo promptly misappropriated the very language of the Declaration of Independence to promote an agenda explicitly calling for the removal of rights. “My hope,” he announced, “is that the Commission on Unalienable Rights will ground our understanding of human rights in a manner that will both inform and better protect essential freedoms — and underscore how central these ideas are not only to Americans, but to all of humanity.” As the rest of his comments showed, he was invoking the freedom to deprive others, exclude others, and cause hardship for others. Placed alongside the border realities, it was a testament to the administration’s determination to erase rights from the nation’s identity. Putting a fine point on his goals, Pompeo added that, in his view, human rights and democracy were distinctly in opposition to each other. As he pungently put it, “Loose talk of ‘rights’ unmoors us from the principles of liberal democracy.”

Pompeo’s attempt to recast the founders’ intent in the context of today’s cruelty may be the most full-throated articulation to date of what this administration has been up to. The ongoing mistreatment of children at the border, a story that has lasted for well over a year, suggests that the spirit of Pompeo’s Declaration of Inhuman Rights has long been on the agenda. He had one thing right, however: Those border camps do seem to belong to another place and time, one that preceded the U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, another document he invoked, intending to reshape American adherence to it.

The New Status Quo

This is hardly the first time the Trump administration has revealed its cynicism over democracy. Redefining the very purpose of “liberal democracy,” as I wrote more than a year ago, had been part of its mission since the beginning. In its first 18 months, the administration removed the language of democracy from the mission statements of many of its departments, including the phrase “nation of immigrants” from that of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Still, after two and a half years of reorienting the executive branch of government away from equal protection under the law, the equal right to vote, and a respect for the very idea of welcoming immigrants, Pompeo’s “commission” may be the most brazen conceptual act yet when it comes to erasing the language of human rights from the country’s identity.

It’s in this still-developing context that the migrant children crisis should be understood. It should be seen as a graphic version of the insistence of this administration on changing the very meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the modern age. For Pompeo (as for his president), the evolution of the country towards more rights for more people is nothing but a mark of shame. How far back would he take us? To before the Civil War?

No wonder, on learning each day’s news from the border, it’s easy to feel we’ve entered a dismal fairy tale from an age of ogres and witches, where the forces of evil and ill will have taken charge and the prospect of saving helpless children seems as irretrievably long gone as those crumbs eaten by the birds following Hansel and Gretel on their grim journey into the witch’s lair. Attacking the most vulnerable among us — infants, toddlers, young children, teens — leaves little room for doubt. This administration is determined to undo the country’s commitment to human rights and so change its identity in a way that should concern us all.

Cummings Rips McAleenan Over Migrant Kids ‘In Feces’

Printed with Permission from Alternet

House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) brought down the hammer on acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan on Thursday over his department’s cruel treatment of migrant children.

“You feel like you’re doing a great job, right?” asked Cummings during the day’s committee hearing. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“We’re doing out level best in a very challenging —” McAleenan said, starting to answer, but Cummings cut him off.

“What does that mean?!” Cummings erupted. “What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces. Can’t take a shower. Come on, man! What’s that about?! None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings. And I’m trying to figure out — and I get tired of folks saying, ‘Oh, oh they’re just beating up the border patrol. Oh, they’re just beating up on Homeland Security.’ What I’m saying is I want to concentrate on these children. And I want to make sure that they’re OK. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. It’s not the deed that you do to a child, it’s the memory. It’s the memory!”

He continued: “And so, and I told the head of border patrol the other day. I said I want to know what’s happening the meantime. We are the United States of America. We are the greatest country in the world. We are the ones who can go anywhere in the world and say to people: ‘Make sure that they have diapers. Make sure that they have toothbrushes. Make sure that they’re not laying around, defecating in some silver paper.’ Come on! We’re better than that!”

Official Says Migrant Kids Will Be Returned To Border Detention Center

In a Tuesday call with reporters, a Trump official said 100 children have been sent back to a border detention facility so horrendous one doctor compared the conditions to “torture facilities.”

According to the New York Times, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official also told reporters on the call, “I personally don’t believe these allegations.”

But those allegations arose from visits to two facilities by lawyers for the children being detained, as well as a board-certified physician. According to interviews with dozens of children being detained, kids were being fed uncooked frozen food, forced to sleep on concrete floors, and had not had showers in weeks.

In one instance, lawyers saw a “2-year-old boy, he wasn’t wearing a diaper and had wet his pants, and his shirt was smeared in mucus.” Three children, aged 10 to 15, took turns looking after the toddler because no one else was there to do it, according to accounts given to the Associated Press.

Dolly Lucio Sevier, the physician, wrote that the conditions “could be compared to torture facilities.”

“I can’t imagine my child being there and not being broken,” she told ABC News.

After the reports emerged, the Trump administration removed all but 30 children from the Clint Border Patrol station, one of the facilities visited by the doctor and lawyers.

Children do not belong in detention,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX), who represents the area near the Clint detention facility, said at the time. Trump’s policies “are only harming children and promoting needless and cruel family separation,” she added. “This must end.”

But instead of ending the cruelty, Trump officials are returning children to the same facility where they experienced such deplorable conditions.

Published with permission of The American Independent. 

Over 200 Allegations Of Abuse Of Migrant Children — And One DHS Employee Disciplined

From 2009 to 2014, at least 214 complaints were filed against federal agents for abusing or mistreating migrant children. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s records, only one employee was disciplined as a result of a complaint.

The department’s records, which have alarmed advocates for migrants given the more aggressive approach to the treatment of minors at the border under the current administration, emerged as part of a federal lawsuit seeking the release of the names of the accused agents.

Last month, attorneys for DHS argued before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that disclosing the names of the federal agents would infringe on their right to privacy. A district judge had earlier ordered the department to make the names public.

The fact that only a single case of discipline apparently resulted from more than 200 complaints of child abuse clearly worried the district judge, John Tuchi, of Arizona, who ruled on the matter in the spring of 2018. In his order demanding the release of the names, Tuchi faulted DHS for failing to vigorously investigate claims of misconduct, stating that “completed investigations were almost nonexistent.”

DHS declined to comment for this story.

The ongoing legal battle stretches back to 2014, when American Civil Liberties Union chapters in Arizona and Southern California began seeking details about the alleged mistreatment of minors apprehended and detained by Customs and Border Protection, an agency within Homeland Security. Using the Freedom of Information Act, attorneys with the ACLU approached DHS with a request for copies of all records regarding the verbal, physical and sexual abuse of minors by Customs or Border Patrol personnel.

The ACLU’s fact-finding initiative came as the federal government struggled to deal with a massive spike in the number of children — many from violence-plagued Central American countries, many unaccompanied by parents — crossing the southern border into the U.S.

Hoping to speed the release of the documents, the ACLU later filed suit. While the federal government eventually turned over some 30,000 pages of heavily redacted records, including 214 allegations of child abuse by agents, it has balked at disclosing the names of the Border Patrol and Customs personnel alleged to have harmed minors.

ACLU attorney Mitra Ebadolahi said that without the names of Customs and Border Protection employees — or some other way to identify them, such as tracking numbers — it’s impossible to divine basic facts about the agency’s handling of children. “We don’t know the total number of complaints submitted by a child or on behalf of a child,” Ebadolahi said in an interview, noting that there are likely far more than 214 complaints. “We don’t know the number of agents implicated. Is it a handful of agents? Are they clustered in a certain sector? Were any of those agents disciplined?”

The single disciplinary record released by DHS involved an employee with Immigration and Customs Enforcement who verbally abused a minor.

DHS maintains that the records it has already shared offer a detailed picture of the abuse allegations — including date, location and the substance of the complaint — as well as the government’s efforts to investigate them. For the public, there’s little value in “knowing the names of specific individual agents who have been subject to allegations of misconduct,” said DHS attorney Laura Myron during oral arguments before the 9th Circuit on May 16. Myron stressed that the privacy rights of Border Patrol and Customs employees would be violated by the release of their names in connection with the abuse complaints.

Myron disputed Tuchi’s view that DHS had failed to thoroughly investigate the allegations, saying his statement was not supported by the evidence presented in the case, or the documents turned over to the ACLU.

In court, Judge Sandra Ikuta expressed concern that the ACLU would “harass” the employees and endanger their lives by publishing their names.

“We would accept some alternative [to the release of the names] that would allow the public to look at the records that we’ve obtained and make sense of them,” Ebadolahi responded. “There are cases where agencies have done that.”

The complaints unearthed by Ebadolahi and her colleagues, though redacted, offer glimpses of troubling patterns of behavior within the ranks. One boy told investigators “that during his apprehension by Border Patrol agents he was hit on the head with a flashlight. … He sustained a laceration to his scalp that required three (3) staples.” The boy’s story was buttressed by the fact that he had three clearly visible staples closing a fresh wound on his head. Other children reported being punched, shocked with Tasers, and denied food and medicine. Many described being bludgeoned with flashlights.

In one memo, from June 2014, a DHS investigator suggested shutting down an investigation into a minor offense because the department was deluged with a “huge amount of more serious complaints.”

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.