Holly Richardson: Our government’s treatment of migrant children is abhorrent

Isidro, the nephew of Paulina Gutierrez Alonzo, plays with a Captain America action figure while she gives an interview at her grandfather's home in Joyabaj, Guatemala, Thursday, July 26, 2018. Gutierrez Alonzo was deported from United States in June and separated from her 7-year-old daughter Antonia Yolanda Gomez Gutierrez, Isidro's cousin, who is currently at an immigration center in Arizona despite the Thursday deadline for reuniting children with their families who were caught entering the country without authorization. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

At the end of June, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw ordered that the federal government reunite the 2,000 children they separated from their families in May and June. As the deadline passed last week, over 700 children remain in limbo.

While the federal government pats itself on the back for reuniting families it shouldn’t have separated in the first place, it also cannot account for the whereabouts of hundreds of parents. Judge Sabraw described the government’s failure to keep track of split families “a deeply troubling reality” of a policy that separated families “without forethought.”

In some instances, the parents “voluntarily” accepted deportation as a condition of being reunited with their children, but the reunions have yet to happen. In some cases, the children are separated from family because they were deemed “ineligible” to be reunited. Representative Karen Bass, D-Calif., tweeted: “Last week, I spoke to a grandmother (in a cage) who the government had deemed “ineligible” to stay with her grandchild because she was not his mother. The boy was shipped off to foster care and in 6 months, can be put up for adoption in Texas. That’s what “ineligible” means.”

Chilling stories continue to pile up about how these children are being treated. Children are having their belongings taken from them, including dollies clung to by little girls, being told that their families have abandoned them, that they will be detained until they turn 18, are being mocked and lied to. They are being subjected to sleep deprivation, served rotten food, being physically hit and kicked and in some cases, held naked. It’s abhorrent.

In an NBC article, Franklin, an 11-year-old Honduran boy spoke about the treatment he and his 7-year-old brother received in a detention center: freezing cold conditions, inadequate blankets, being woken at 3 a.m. and given inedible food.

In another instance, now part of a court case, with over 200 youth being represented, 16-year old Sergio F. described how he and his father were separated, all of their belongings were taken away and then they were put into different vehicles.

“When I left, and my dad wasn’t with me, they told me not to worry that he would be coming in a moment,” he said, according to testimony given in Spanish and translated into English. “I went in the car and felt very relieved and happy that he would follow. But it wasn’t like that. He didn’t come. I haven’t seen him since.”

That was more than 45 days ago. When a guard found him crying in a bathroom, he was mocked for being a “crybaby.”

And, it gets even worse. ProPublica, the news organization that released the tape of detained children crying, just released a new report about sexual abuse in immigrant youth shelters.

“If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine,” says Lisa Fortuna, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center. “You have full access and then you have kids that have already had this history of being victimized.”

By using public records laws, ProPublica obtained more than 1,000 pages of police reports and call log records documenting hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse, fights and missing children from more than 70 facilities of the approximately 100 run by the U.S. Health and Human Services department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. The stories are deeply disturbing.

Also deeply disturbing is the revelation that at least one facility is administering psychotropic drugs to their young residents to “keep them compliant” without parental permission or a court order. Some children were being forced to take up to 15 pills a day and if they refused, they either had their mouths pried open or were given injections of drugs so powerful they rendered at least one child incapable of walking.

Federal Judge Dolly Gee ordered on Monday that children be removed from that facility unless a licensed professional deems them a danger to themselves or others and has prohibited the administration of psychotropics without a court order or parental consent.

It’s not like the current administration didn’t know the consequences. They were warned about “traumatic psychological injury” if they pursued separating families under the “zero tolerance” policy. In front of Congress yesterday, Commander Jonathan White of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps said in response to questioning that “there’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.” Maybe that was the point all along. Or maybe the kids are acceptable collateral damage in a game of political warfare where “elections have consequences.”

The racist rhetoric of describing people — families — as infestations to be eradicated, fish to be caught and animals to be caged has worked before. It worked during slavery, it worked during Chinese immigration of the 1800s, it worked during the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II and it’s working now. Over 14,000 campaign ads this election cycle celebrate “getting tough” on immigration.

If we want to put an end to this despicable approach to other human beings, we have to do more than shout at the TV or news headlines. If we do not take bold action, if we do not speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, then our nation will continue to reap the whirlwind.

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

Holly Richardson, a Salt Lake Tribune columnist, continues to be outraged at the damage being done to children and their families in order to score political points.