In the past year, at least seven migrant children—Mariee Juárez (age 18 months), Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez (age 2), Jakelin Caal Maquín (age 7), Felipe Alonzo Gómez (age 8), Darlyn Valle (age 10), Juan de León Gutiérrez (age 16), and Carlos Hernández Vásquez (age 16)—have died after being taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol.
As their families confront the grief of losing a child, it is important not to mistake these deaths for isolated tragedies. Recent accounts demonstrate that these events are symptoms of a broader agenda that victimizes families. Detention centers, a visible consequence of this agenda, are not just bad for children; they are deliberately run in cruel, dangerous ways.
In a recent lawsuit against the Trump administration, attorneys and physicians detailed the abysmal conditions in which children in government custody are held.* They are asking a federal judge to hold the U.S. government in contempt of court for “flagrant and persistent” violations of the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which sets basic standards of protection for the treatment of children in government custody.
The firsthand testimonies of migrant children currently being held in immigration facilities reveal, in painful detail, a systematic failure to uphold the basic dignity and well-being of children. Here are five of the most significant revelations from these testimonies.
1. Guards intentionally intimidate children
Testimonies reveal how detention center staff sometimes punish children for showing fear or sadness—natural emotions for children who are tired, hungry, and cold. One youth from El Salvador observed how an officer would chide children who cried: “I am in a room with dozens of other boys. Right now, there is a 12-year-old who cries a lot. Others try to comfort him. One of the officers makes fun of the boys who cry.” Rather than extend reassurance, something an adult with authority should surely be able to do—and a key part of promoting healthy socio-emotional development—officers extend ridicule.
Beyond demonstrating a shocking lack of compassion toward frightened children, testimonies also show that some guards appear to deliberately scare children in their custody. One 12-year-old from Ecuador explained the extent of officials’ intimidation tactics: “During the night when we’re trying to sleep they come in and wake us up, yelling and scaring us. Sometimes children rise up in the night and officials yell at them to lay back down.” Another 12-year-old from Guatemala explained how staff punished a hungry teen for hiding food in his room:
“The guards at the second facility were mean and scary. They yelled at us. One day the guards demanded to know who had food. ‘Whoever has food will go to prison,’ they yelled. They wanted to know if anyone had snuck in food in the cell. They found one kid who was about 15 or 16 years old who had [extra food]. The officials handcuffed his wrists. My cousin and I were very shocked and scared.”
Being insensitive to children’s emotional needs is one thing, but it is clear that some guards knowingly sow fear and uncertainty in their young charges.
2. Agents still separate families
Despite President Donald Trump falsely claiming to have ended family separation, U.S. Customs and Border Protection staff continue the practice. In recent testimonies, a 5-year-old from Honduras explained his fear after immigration agents separated him from his father; and a young mother from El Salvador described how she and her 1-year-old daughter were both separated from her fiancé:
“They came and took our daughter and me out of the cell and separated my fiancé from us. We were all very upset. Our baby was crying. I was crying. My fiancé was crying. We asked the guards why they were taking our family apart and they yelled at us … We have not seen him since.”
These revelations come on the heels of a recent news story that showed that children as young as 4 months old have been separated from their families under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. The science could not be more clear: Separating families has long-term consequences for children’s psychological and physical health. And yet, according to children’s testimonies, the practice continues.
3. Poor sanitation is affecting children’s health
Proper sanitation is so central to health that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify it as both a critical public health practice and the simplest way to avoid illness, particularly in group settings where disease can spread quickly. However, without regular access to soap and water in detention centers, children are getting sick. Recent stories of influenza outbreaks in detention centers are echoed in children’s accounts. One 17-year-old from Guatemala described how the poor sanitation has affected his health: “When I got here … I was completely well and have no medical problems. I do have my immunizations. I didn’t get sick until I got here, but I was next to someone who was sick, and the next day, I got sick, too.”
For individuals who are young parents, there’s the added strain of taking care of their children’s needs. One 17-year-old mother from Honduras laments: “I have not been able to wash and clean my baby since June 4th. We do not have toothbrushes or toothpaste or towels in the cages. My daughter’s onesie is very dirty.” Because babies’ immune systems are less mature, proper sanitation is especially important to their health. Yet detention centers are woefully neglectful in providing this basic necessity.
4. Hunger is rampant
Although children receive regular meals, such as oatmeal for breakfast and frozen burritos for dinner, it is simply not enough. Children in custody report feeling hunger so intense that it interferes with their sleep. One 12-year-old child from Guatemala even commented: “I’m so hungry that I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with hunger. Sometimes I wake up from hunger at 4 a.m., sometimes at other hours.” Others note that the food lacks nutrition, criticizing centers’ failure to provide milk, fruit, or vegetables. As one 8-year-old from Guatemala commented, “There are always cookies but the food does not fill you up and I am hungry.” Or the food simply makes them ill; one teenage mother from Honduras explained that the food is so bad that it gives her stomach aches. Public health experts such as Rafael Perez-Escamilla characterize the food options in detention centers as “appalling,” the sort of diet associated with obesity and chronic disease.
A lack of food and drinkable water is particularly dangerous for young breastfeeding mothers in detention. Good nutrition and proper hydration are critical for producing breastmilk, and when a mother’s nutrition is compromised, so is her infant’s. Yet in a court declaration, pediatrician Dr. Dolly Lucio Sevier noted that breastfeeding mothers held at the Ursula processing center in McAllen, Texas, only drink half the water they need.
5. Children are subject to humiliating invasions of privacy
Finally, children are forced into close quarters with little hope of privacy. Testimonies provide many examples of children being held in crowded rooms where they must regularly share blankets and sleeping mats with others. According to one 11-year-old girl from Ecuador, as many as 10 children share a single mat. These rooms, in which overhead lights shine 24 hours a day, offer no place to hide, use the bathroom, change clothes, or wash. The same 11-year-old continues: “The toilet is inside of the room where we sleep. There is no separate room, just two stalls with no doors.”
Conditions are no better for young parents; one 16-year-old mother from Honduras reported spending four days in an outdoor cage with her baby, desperately looking for clothing, diapers, and baby wipes—and publicly changing her infant on the ground. These conditions violate these young migrants’ human dignity and have even been compared to “torture.”
From her home in Guatemala, Jakelin dreamed about learning to read and write. And Juan’s teacher described him as intelligent but shy, a hard worker who helped his father in the coffee fields. Together with Mariee, Wilmer, Felipe, Darlyn, and Carlos, these children’s deaths are devastating losses to families who will grieve for the rest of their lives. Though each death represents an irrevocable loss, they are not isolated. Cruel and inhumane policies connect these stories to those of the anonymous children whose testimonies have recently come to light. The United States must do all it can to stop these unconscionable policies. Otherwise, future tragedies are inevitable.
Cristina Novoa is a senior policy analyst for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress.
*Author’s note: According to The New York Times, on June 28, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District of California asked that an independent monitor ensure that the government quickly deals with the conditions in Border Patrol. Gee gave a July 12 deadline for the Trump administration to report on what has been done “post haste” to fix the conditions.