But what happens when the kids are not our kids? Do we still care about children even when they happen to be born elsewhere? What if those children are being held by our government? What if they are being apprehended, guarded and detained by our government agents and dependent on those agents to treat them with dignity and humanity? Do we care what happens to these children then.
How do we feel about these children being punched, kicked, tased, dragged along the ground, grabbed on the buttocks, made to sleep in freezing rooms on cement floors covered in garbage, denied medical care and threatened with having their food withheld by our civil servants?
These are the conditions detailed in a report released Wednesday by the ACLU and the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. The report accompanies approximately 30,000 pages of documentation obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act that describe abusive treatment of children in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection.
This is not the first report of abuse of migrants by Border Patrol agents at the U.S. southern border and of the culture of abuse and impunity that seems to have developed in our immigration enforcement. Earlier this year, Francisco Cantu published a memoir of his time as a Border Patrol agent that described a practice of institutional violence and dehumanization of migrants. Reviewers balked at his admission that agents regularly destroyed stashes of water hidden by migrants in an effort to survive the unforgiving desert climate.
It turns out that was just the tip of a very disturbing iceberg. CBP officials threaten and humiliate children, physically assault them and detain them in unhygienic conditions, according to the new report.
While working on the report, law students at the University of Chicago Law School spent the last year reviewing complaint after complaint of children apprehended and detained by CBP officials. One document describes a child laying on the ground as a Border Patrol agent came up to him and tased him in the stomach. The agent then put his foot on the child’s leg and pushed down, kneed the child in the stomach twice and kicked him into a thorn bush. Another document describes an agent running over a child with his car and punching the child in the head and body several times. Several documents describe children deprived of food and potable water, held in freezing cells and using bathrooms with overflowing toilets. (These records are available to the public at the ACLU San Diego/Imperial website.)
There are records of children being threatened with rape, being made to stand nude in front of officers while answering questions, being called “prostitute” and “dog” and told they came to “contaminate” the country. When one pregnant minor told an agent she was in pain and needed medical help, she was not given help or taken to a hospital. The agent told her she was lying, that it was a scheme to get out of detention and see her family. In fact, she was having labor pains before a stillbirth.
Many of the children in these reports are between the ages of 9 and 14. Most have traveled long distances on their way to the U.S. border, the majority in the hopes of escaping extreme poverty and violence. Like all children, they don’t necessarily know what they are getting into. In fact, many run toward border agents expecting help. They don’t understand immigration policy, border security or the complex network of agencies, laws and administrative rules that make up our immigration system.
We have federal laws and agency policies in place to protect them. These children are entitled to basic protections — dignified and respectful treatment, safe, secure and clean facilities, adequate food and drinkable water, proper medical care. They are also, by law, protected against child abuse by personnel working in federal facilities. What we don’t seem to have is effective training and supervision of officers and agents and enforcement of these laws and policies.
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