A photo of chairs used for babies against a wall.

Department of Health and Human Services


Department of Health and Human Services

Immigrant Child Detention Centers Are Becoming Death Camps

Even with a new executive order to stop separating minors from their parents at the border, the inhospitable, understaffed detention centers holding thousands are still putting kids in grave danger.

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Since the announcement of the Trump administration’s new policy of separating children from their parents who have crossed the border illegally, an average of 46 children a day in May and 67 children a day in June have been separated from their parents and placed in detention centers and Customs and Border Patrol–holding facilities. The need for housing has so quickly outgrown capacity that CBP has announced the development of tent cities at facilities along the border to house the children they are taking.

Even with Trump signing an executive order Wednesday to halt family separations—announced with his contradictory rhetoric of “no tolerance” for immigrants—thousands of kids are still separated from their parents, many of whom have been deported or are on the other side of the country. How will these families be reunited?

Thousands of kids are still in the care of unqualified agents of the government who are not following laws governing child care. Not only are these kids at risk, they are actively being harmed, and even abused. The overwhelming deluge of children being ripped from their parents and sent to detention facilities has led the government to hurriedly ship some off to private day-care centers, many of which have documented histories of abuse and neglect.

Even more astonishing, newly available details of a lawsuit filed in April that allege children held in these facilities were subjected to repeated abuse and drugging to keep them complacent. Accounts from children and their family members detail forced injections, agents administering psychotropic drugs that left some kids lethargic, confused, and prone to falls, as well as vaccinations given without parental consent. A new investigation by Reveal and the The Texas Tribune has uncovered unimaginable abuse: broken bones, burns, sexual assault (of a 4-year-old girl), and at least one death.

This is a disaster.

Beyond the abuse and neglect, there simply aren’t enough adults to adequately care for these kids. Customs and Border Patrol will inevitably have more blood on their hands.

How do I know? Because of my experience working in a licensed day-care facility in South Dakota, which I did for a year and a half. There were between 70 to 80 kids on any given day. The majority of the kids were age 3 and over, but a not insignificant chunk were toddlers and infants. As a designated “float” teacher, I would show up to work and find out which age group I was working with that day, filling in where needed in order to ensure the day care remained compliant with state-licensure needs.

While working at the day-care center, I found myself consoling children who fell and hurt themselves, or got slivers or needed ice packs. Multiple qualified adults were needed at all times, because while one kid is getting an ice pack for a bump on his head, another child is going to attempt that same daring jump that hurt the first kid. During checkout time, I was in charge of paying careful attention to adult-to-child ratios and telling my fellow teachers when they could leave. Even on days where we had all teachers on hand, I went home from work worn out from a dozen different kids demanding my full attention at all times.

Ratio policies are necessary, not just to keep child-care workers from being exhausted. They are an important part of a child’s development and protection. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development recommends lower adult-to-child ratios in day-care settings as a method for reducing stress in caretakers; it even affects a child’s ability to socialize and connect well with their peers. These regulations are in place to protect the children—caretakers are much more prone to develop a short temper, to spot the warning signs of heat stroke, illness, and other problems, to engage in corporal punishment if they are the sole adult in a room of 30 4-year-olds. Studies cited by the OECD back this up.

My familiarity with these standards and regulations has brought the crisis happening along the U.S. border into bright, sunlit clarity. Standards of care regulating shelters in Texas are slightly different from those in South Dakota, but they are well in line with the standards in states across the country, which are fairly straightforward: Any adult in a position of caring for children must be over the age of 18, with a high-school diploma, and a clean background check. At least one adult on duty at all times must be certified in CPR and First Aid. If a facility has, for example, 30 children, with 14 4-year-olds, three infants, and 13 6-year-olds, that facility needs at least four adults at all times.

It’s simple math: There can be no more than 12 under-5-year-olds per adult, so 14 5-year-olds demands two adults already. Each infant counts as two children, so they would need to be their own separate group, so now we’re at three. And the group of 6-year-olds needs at least one more qualified adult. This would be the bare minimum needed to make ratio in the state of Texas at a child-care facility.

In order to keep up with demand and comply with state law, the CBP agency in Texas needs to be hiring, at a minimum, eight adults a day to work in 12-hour shifts to care for these children (more in facilities where there is an influx of children under age 4). With an average of 67 new kids each day, in facilities spread across the southern United States, it is doubtful that CBP is keeping up with the demand. Indeed, we already know that the demand has outgrown available indoor facilities and tent cities are already popping up along the border.

The CBP announced late Tuesday that because of the influx, they would be opening “tender age shelters” for the babies that were being brought in—children who are still breastfeeding, who are in one of the most vital parts of their development. Additionally, testimonials from visiting doctors explain that the CBP staff are not allowed to touch the children—removing a vital role in gaining trust between children and their caretakers, hamstringing the ability to care even further. MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff, who has been reporting from the ground near the facilities for the past week, reported on Twitter that the toddlers in these tender-age shelters are being supervised by contractors in watchtowers.

Even worse, the alleged administered drugs by these facilities—to keep them sedated and compliant—flies in the face of laws surrounding the administration of medications to minors in every state, including Texas. Any medication usage must be carefully documented and done only with express permission from the parent or legal guardian of the child. Considering the administration has no plans for reunification of families, parents have no way to give permission for this medical intervention.

What we are witnessing is a humanitarian crisis in action. Children are being housed with inadequate adult supervision and care, in tents, in the June Texas heat. In Tornillo, where one of the tent cities is set up, the average temperature is 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Heatstroke is inevitable as the children are housed in un-airconditioned temporary shelters in the middle of the desert. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, children are among the most at-risk for dying of heat-related death.

There is no way CBP can keep up with the demand this administration’s policy of family separation is creating. With inadequate supervision and housing in temporary shelters, and ORR providing insufficient medical attention, it is inevitable that some of these migrant children will suffer completely preventable deaths—one of the adults (who, remember, are not trained in child care) will inevitably slip up and miss the signs and symptoms of deadly heat stroke when they are trying to watch a hundred other children at the same time.

And their sickness and deaths will be because of Donald Trump and Stephen Miller and Kirstjen Nielsen and John Kelly and Jefferson Sessions, who have created this humanitarian crisis. And yet, Trump insists on tweeting that Democrats are responsible for it. The details of his executive order to halt family separation are inadequate—he is refusing to reunite the families, holding these kids hostage so he can get his damn wall. This is unspeakable.

There’s really only one conclusion you can draw, regardless of party affiliation: What is happening to the children of undocumented immigrants at the border is nothing short of a deliberate evil, leading straight to an even more unfathomable tragedy. And it must be stopped.

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