Scarred by the sights and sounds of separated, frightened children crying for their parents from the cold, concrete floors of the frigid, cramped holding cells known as hieleras of U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities at the border, America is eager to leave this shameful chapter in the past.
Yet a sharp increase in the number of minors arriving at the border in recent weeks has left more than 4,000 children in Border Patrol holding cells again, many for longer than legally allowed. Roughly 8,500 more children are being housed in shelters as they wait to be placed with relatives or vetted sponsors.
The Biden Administration has vowed to honor the hope and promise that drives so many to America’s border seeking refuge. But keeping this promise will require a departure from past policy that has relied on holding migrant children in custody. The government cannot simply design a new facility with prettier window dressings and a bigger playground, or any detention facility designed to hold an overflow of people. We need to treat minors not as threats, but as children.
Many families arriving at the border today are denied the forms of relief and opportunity that my own family experienced. When I was 10 years old, we fled El Salvador as the brutal civil war ravaged our home country. We were initially denied political asylum, but we were lucky to have arrived at the right time. Thanks to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which strengthened immigration enforcement with legalization provisions for unauthorized immigrants, we petitioned and were granted permanent resident status. Nowadays, families like mine are denied entry altogether or are torn apart.
Restrictive asylum policies like Title 42 have lead to an increase in the number of children who arrive unaccompanied. Last March, the Trump administration invoked the little-used public health rule to justify the border’s indefinite closure. Unaccompanied children were originally excluded from the order, but they were nonetheless reportedly turned back or expelled from the U.S., in direct violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. While the Biden administration has kept the order in place, it is no longer expelling unaccompanied minors. However, his administration is still removing children traveling with adults.
Adding to these inhospitable polices are the complexities of situations in which children arrive at the border. Many come to the U.S. in the company of an aunt, uncle or older sibling. Because those relatives are often not the legal guardian, they are separated at the border — a safeguard against child trafficking.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees government shelters, has relied on a large network of shelters run by private, for-profit corporations to hold children. Under the Trump administration, the government used children in detention as bait to arrest family and sponsors who came forward for their release. This arrangement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, created a chilling effect and left thousands of children to languish in facilities across the country.
While we have yet to know how family separation and detention will affect children in the long term, the research paints a grim picture. Studies show that children held in immigration detention centers exhibit higher rates of emotional distress, and may be at risk for mental health disorders. Children already distressed in their home countries or by their journey showed more fear, feelings of abandonment and post-traumatic stress symptoms when they are separated from their parents.
What’s more, these facilities have historically been rife with abuse. At a Homestead detention center in South Florida — which sits next to a military Superfund site — at least four Central American immigrant children reported being sexually abused by staff members. Sadly, Homestead was not an exception.
The Migration Policy Institute found that the budgets of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and I.C.E. nearly tripled between 2005 and 2020. But when the government’s primary focus is not family unity we don’t just run the risk of putting children in danger, the outcomes are traumatizing to children and families.
This funding should be redirected into the infrastructure and capacity needed to humanely and efficiently welcome children and families at the border. We can invest in programs that expeditiously and safely transport children directly to their families, or a safe sponsor home — not detention facilities. As the government estimates that 80 percent of arriving children already have family in the U.S., it’s clearly a logistical undertaking worth striving for.
In cases where children cannot immediately reunite with family, we need child-centered alternatives to custody that are transparent and have built-in accountability measures and resources for children: experienced social workers, trauma-informed counselors and licensed medical professionals who are professionally trained to work with youth.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement already evaluates a potential sponsor’s ability to provide for the child’s physical and mental well-being. The process for the safe and timely release of an unaccompanied child currently includes several steps, including the identification of sponsors, sponsor application, interviews, the assessment of sponsor suitability, including verification of the sponsor’s identity and relationship to the child, background checks, and in some cases home studies and post-release planning. We can redirect funds to drastically expand the vetted sponsor program, and include equal collaboration of state and local child welfare agencies, community organizations, and nonprofits.
To simply return to the failed model of child detention of the pre-Trump era is a missed opportunity to meaningfully reimagine our immigration system. The new administration can enact child-centered solutions that respect and prioritize family unity. In doing so, we can begin to phase out detention altogether.
I shudder to think about the countless children who do not have the same opportunities that my brother and I had when we came to this country, who have been torn apart from their loved ones, and who now face a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment. Immigrant children are not political bargaining chips, and we must not allow xenophobia to influence humanitarian policy.
All children, no matter where they were born, what language they speak, or the color of their skin, deserve to be treated humanely, with dignity and with love.
Luz Lopez is a senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. She previously served in the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice.
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