By Gabriela C. Romeri [1]

When men have departed from the right way, it is no wonder that they stumble and fall… 
 however well adapted it might appear to you, it is, nevertheless, a jumble of good and bad 
          put unwisely together, and the conclusion drawn therefrom, both unnatural and unjust.
-Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776

After 40 years of criminalizing drugs, the U.S. Drug War succeeded in endangering even the children. Youth today are targeted and killed with relative impunity throughout Mexico and Central America. “In only the first three months of 2012, 920 children were killed in Honduras and girls as young as nine were gang-raped” in all three Iron Triangle countries El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, reported the Forced Migration Review.[1] Minors in these nations are killed most often for refusing to join gangs that force them to sell drugs and as retribution for parents who fail to pay their monthly extortion, which gangs call a ‘war tax.’ When a Central American or Mexican youth refuses to join the gangs, they become either targets or exiles.

While trying to cross Mexico in hopes of reaching U.S. asylum, vulnerable children are especially easy prey to traffickers and criminals. Youth are targeted, used for extortion “as cash machines” and disappeared, giving rise to increased human trafficking on a global scale.[2] A delegation that included the Catholic Church on an “Observation Mission” through Mexico to document the condition of migrants summed up their findings: “Mexico is a graveyard for migrants.”[3]

For the past 10 years, illegal migration by Mexican nationals had dropped. Between 2009 and 2014, Pew Research shows, “More Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the U.S. than have migrated here since the end of the Great Recession.”[4] Instead, children began risking it alone. “In 2012, the number of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) being detained by the U.S. government more than doubled—from 6,000 to more than 14,000 child detainees. This year, according to the Refugee Council: ‘It is expected that roughly 23,500 UAC will arrive by the end of this fiscal year 2013.’ This is low compared to the 100,000 children that Border Patrol claims to prevent from crossing every year.” As this information broke nationally, I published it in Maryknoll magazines, America (Jesuit journal) and others.[5] Then the number again doubled.

Of the 46,932 unaccompanied youth that reached our U.S.-Mexico border in 2014, initially detained by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents, Pew Research learned something astounding: entries of youth ages 13 to 17 increased 12% from the year before. While the rates of children age 12 and younger had increased by 117%.[6] Sometimes on foot, from countries as far away as Honduras—a trip of 2,330 miles. One such child, a 12 year old boy found by CBP in the Sonoran Desert near El Paso, came carrying his 9 year old paraplegic sister on his back.[7]

The U.S. had to find bed space for the 68,541 youth who arrived alone in 2015; nearly double the number that reached our shore the year before, according to CBP records.[8] After angered GOP reactions over the overwhelming numbers of youth, in 2015 the U.S. gave Mexico and Central American countries $750 million or more to prevent immigrants from reaching our shore, asking these failed states to instead detect, detain and deport them themselves.[9]

This is the strategy Trump used in mid-2019 when he threatened Mexico with tariffs if they didn’t prevent more immigrants from reaching our shore. While this may have “solved” our problem, youth were pushed into a far deeper hell. On both sides of our precious border.

The very first expression of America witnessed by these stateless, vulnerable and exhausted children and families are our U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, armed agents in uniform. The American Immigration Council (AIC) in 2014 was able, through FOIA and litigation, to obtain “809 reports of abuse obtained by researchers” against CBP agents and supervisors, reported from 2009 to 2012. The abuse included: threatening minors with violence or death, intimidating minors to sign deportation agreements in English, sexual abuse and misconduct, and medical negligence. The AIC notes that of all the 809 reports of abuse by CBP that they were able to examine, “filed between January 2009 and January 2012—97% resulted in ‘no action.’” It’s also important to note: AIC and most experts agree that abused people often fail to report injustice for fear of even worse reprisal—for good reason. Most prevalent in the AIC findings: “78% of allegations against Border Patrol agents were for ‘physical abuse’ or ‘excessive use of force.’ In one case, it meant kicking “a pregnant, undocumented immigrant… causing her to miscarry.”[10]

After years of litigation and failed FOIA requests: “Since 2015, the ACLU has obtained over 30,000 pages of records related to abuse of children in CBP custody. These records document a pattern of intimidation, harassment, physical abuse, refusal of medical services, and improper deportation between 2009 and 2014. These records also reveal the absence of meaningful internal or external agency oversight and accountability.” ACLU also notes our federal government both “failed to provide adequate safeguards and humane detention conditions for children in CBP custody,” just as it “failed to institute effective accountability” for those “government officers who abuse the vulnerable children entrusted to their care. These failures have allowed a culture of impunity to flourish within CBP, subjecting immigrant children to conditions that are too often neglectful at best and sadistic at worst,” ACLU wrote.

The pattern of systemic abuse, ACLU noted, began escalating in 2014. In June 2014, formal complaints were filed with the two “DHS oversight agencies, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL),” documenting “CBP’s mistreatment of 116 unaccompanied children aged 5 to 17.” DHS assured them a thorough investigation of the cases and the “recurring problems” they represented; then DHS refused. Instead, in Oct. 2014, “DHS OIG announced… that routine inspections of detention facilities would be curtailed.” This points to a premeditated attempt to obscure abuse. ACLU also found: “In 2012, senior CBP officials reported that they believed roughly 10% of the agency’s workforce had ‘integrity problems,’” and estimated that “20% might deserve to be removed from the force entirely.” Among the most prevalent types of CBP abuse found in CRCL complaints were the following:

Children in CBP detention reported “wide-ranging abuses: officials pointing their guns at the children, shooting them with Tasers for amusement or punishment, hitting or kicking them, and threatening them with rape or death.” One of the complaints “documented a child who was ‘run over by a CBP truck,’” which resulted in “crushing” his leg, then was denied immediate treatment. In another complaint, one agent “ran over a 17-year-old with patrol vehicle, and then punched the minor on head and body several times.” Additional reported abuse included: stomping children; punching children in the head, sometimes repeatedly; kicking one child in the ribs; tasering several children; denying them food and forcing minors into stress positions.

ACLU underscored: “firsthand accounts and internal government reports documented horrific detention conditions: children held in freezing rooms with no blankets, food, or clean water; forced to sleep on concrete floors or share overcrowded cells with adult strangers; denied necessary medical care; bullied into signing self-deportation paperwork; and subjected to physical and sexual assault while in CBP custody.” ACLU also notes, with regard to willful intent: “The CRCL documents show federal officers threatening to place children in their custody with unrelated adults precisely so that these children might be sexually abused or raped.” 

In these hieleras or freezers, 80% of the children complained of being denied food and water; most children reported sleeping on the concrete floor without blankets; infant mothers were denied diapers; trashcans were removed from crowded holding cells and feces and other fluids were noted along the floor.[11] In one complaint, a 16-year old girl in a holding cell with her new infant said a CBP agent “stood in the doorway and warned her, ‘Right now, we close the door, we rape you and fuck you.’” In another complaint, “an agent tossed an immigrant child to the ground, leveled a gun” at the crying child and told the minor, “Stop or I will shoot you.”[12]

Yet more horrific news surfaced recently. The Associated Press uncovered in late July 2020 that as a result of the pandemic, and Trump’s EO end of any federal immigration services or asylum petitions, unaccompanied minors and infants are no longer even being assigned Alien numbers. Thus there is no way to know or track how many of these unaccompanied youth entered or left our country. There is no formal record. These minors were reported as being kept by transport company MVM, Inc., inside hotels in El Paso and then “disappearing.” The AP exclusive began:

“The Trump administration is detaining immigrant children as young as 1 in hotels, sometimes for weeks, before deporting them to their home countries under policies that have effectively shut down the nation’s asylum system during the coronavirus pandemic, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. A private contractor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is taking children to three Hampton Inn & Suites hotels in Arizona and at the Texas-Mexico border, where they are typically detained for several days, the records show… The hotels have been used nearly 200 times, while more than 10,000 beds for children sit empty at government shelters… Federal anti-trafficking laws and a two-decade-old court settlement that governs the treatment of migrant children require that most kids be sent to the shelters for eventual placement with family sponsors. But President Donald Trump’s administration is now immediately expelling people seeking asylum in the U.S., relying on a public health declaration to set aside those rules.” Already, AP noted, “At least 2,000 unaccompanied children have been expelled since March, when the Trump administration announced it would broadly refuse entry to people seeking protection in the U.S.”

“Lawyers and advocates say housing unaccompanied migrant children in hotels exposes them to the risk of trauma as they’re detained in places not designed to hold them and cared for by contractors with unclear credentials. They are challenging the use of hotels as detention spaces under the Flores court settlement. ‘They’ve created a shadow system in which there’s no accountability for expelling very young children,’ said Leecia Welch, an attorney at the nonprofit National Center for Youth Law. ‘There really aren’t enough words to describe what a disgraceful example of sacrificing children this is to advance heartless immigration policies.’ ICE largely declined to answer questions but referred to the contractors as ‘transportation specialists’ who are ‘non-law enforcement staff members… It wouldn’t say whether they’re licensed child care professionals or have received FBI background checks,” reported AP. “The records obtained by AP show the Hampton Inn in McAllen was used most often to detain children — 123 times over two months. The other hotels are in Phoenix and El Paso.”[13]

Most shockingly, reported AP: “Before March [2020], Central American children who crossed into the U.S. alone were generally sent to facilities overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS facilities have bedrooms and schooling, and children are given access to lawyers and generally placed with family sponsors. The facilities also are licensed by the states where they’re located. Federal anti-trafficking law requires the government to promptly refer most children to HHS.” Yet this June 2020, “While U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it made 1,564 apprehensions of unaccompanied children at the southern border in June, HHS says it received just 61. CBP wouldn’t say how many children are expelled right away, how many are sent to hotels or how border agents decide between those options or referral to HHS. The agency referred questions about hotels to ICE. ICE said it uses contractor MVM Inc. ‘to transport single minors to hotels and to ensure each minor remains safe and secure while in this temporary housing.’” No church or accredited agency dealing with minors in the U.S. are legally supposed to be alone at any time with a youth; it’s basic child welfare policy. As AP reports: “MVM had a contract with ICE for ‘transportation services’ extended for $49 million on March 31, according to federal contracting data. The company declined to answer questions.”

AP then summarized their June 2020 findings: “The government provided records on the detention of children and teenagers expelled in April and June to a team of lawyers representing the interests of immigrant children under the Flores agreement, reached in 1997. Records for May weren’t available. The Hampton Inns in McAllen, El Paso and Phoenix were used 186 times. No other hotels appear in the records, which indicate that 169 children were detained at the hotels, some with multiple stays. At least two 1-year-olds were held for three days. But some young children, including 3- to 5-year-olds, were detained for two weeks or longer. One 5-year-old was detained for 19 days in the McAllen hotel.”

“The records indicate the children were not accompanied by a parent but don’t say more about the circumstances of their crossing the border. In the past, some very young children have been brought by older siblings or other relatives. Others have been sent by parents waiting for their court dates in refugee camps on the U.S.-Mexico border with hopes they will be placed with relatives. Karla Vargas, a Texas Civil Rights Project lawyer, represented a 13-year-old girl who was detained in a hotel and later expelled to El Salvador... ‘The children with whom we’ve spoken say there are other children in the hotels,’ Vargas said. ‘We know that there are masses of children.’” reported AP.[14] Though where they are, and whether they’re alive, no one knows.

The Southern Border Organization began tracking migrant and American deaths at the hands of CBP because no other branch or agency of government is publicly doing so. From 2010 to 2019, nine years, they recorded 92 deaths. Number 92 was Travis James Eckstein, age 23, fatally shot “during a shootout” at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on June 3, 2019. He was an American. Number 91 was an unnamed Honduran woman, age 40, who “collapsed” after being taken into CBP custody in Eagle Pass, Texas on June 3, 2019. She was, “taken to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead,” Southern Border Org. documented. “Cause of Death: Unknown.” She was the “Third undocumented migrant in 3 days” to die very soon “after being apprehended at US-Mexico border.”[15] It can come as no surprise that children are also dying in CBP custody.

Those minors escaping trauma, surviving extortion and drug cartels, must still cross the blistering heat of the Sonoran Desert. The majority likely arrive with physical symptoms of dehydration and shock. Instead of finding trained medical EMT, ORR or FEMA support on hand, children are further endangered by being put into freezing cells. Even an adult can end up dying from fever or pneumonia. May 2018, Mariee Juárez, almost 2 years old, died after leaving a “family detention center in Dilley, Texas with “a fever of 104.2F, vomiting and diarrhea.”

On Dec. 8, 2018, Jakelin Caal, “a 7-year old Guatemalan girl who crossed the border with her father, died less than two days after being apprehended by the border patrol.” According to CBP records seen by WaPo, “the girl was suffering from dehydration and shock.” She “reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days,” before going into the freezer and then being transported 95 miles. “On behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, our sincerest condolences go out to the family of the child,” CBP publicly noted. “Border patrol agents took every possible step to save the child’s life under the most trying of circumstances. As fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, we empathize with the loss of any child.”[16]

That month on Christmas Eve, Felipe Gómez Alonzo, “an 8-year old boy, died” in CBP custody. Having made it from far away Guatemala, “The boy had been moved through at least four holding facilities and suffered from a fever and vomiting.”[17] In April 2019, Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a “16-year-old Guatemalan boy” in CBP custody, was held for six days by CBP in their South Texas holding cell—rather than the 72 hours set by law. After he was found dead in the facility, officials said the cause was “influenza.” On April 30, 2019, the fourth child from Guatemala known to die in custody since Dec. 2018. Officials “declined to identify the boy or the shelter where he was held for one night before being sent to the emergency room with ‘fever, chills and a headache’.” Medical support came too late and he died in a hospital.[18]

May 14, 2019—a year since Mariee Juárez, age 2, died under the exact same circumstances, an unnamed Guatemalan boy, also age 2, died in a hospital in El Paso from “pneumonia.” While in federal custody his mother had begged “for medical assistance for him after noticing he was ill on April 6.”[19] Such premeditated, institutionalized violence against children, the most defenseless and vulnerable, is very much a war crime. After a traumatizing odyssey of what can be thousands of miles—in the case of Caravans, done for the collective safety of the travelers and made on foot—the use of freezers and lack of medical attention amounts to willful endangerment of refugees, also an international war crime. Reminiscent of the blankets infected with smallpox given to Native tribes during this American continent’s conquest.

On June 22, 2019, attorneys representing detained children had to speak out on what they were witnessing. The CBP holding facility in Clint, Texas—an adult facility previously with 104 beds—was then holding “approximately 350 children.” New Yorker spoke to “Warren Binford, a law professor at Willamette University and the director of its clinical-law program,” which sends teams of attorneys and interpreters to detention facilities. It turns out a warehouse was built at this facility that is one large room, no windows, and holds an estimated 300 children. Despite knowing that this legal team was coming, the children were “filthy dirty,” not given baths, toothbrushes or enough food. “Many of the children reported sleeping on the concrete floor.”

The children told the legal team “that there was a lice infestation as well as an influenza outbreak at that facility, and so a number of the children are being taken into isolation rooms, quarantine areas.” Guards regularly brought in 2 to 4 year olds and assigned them to slightly older children to “take care of them” there. “Children described to us that they’ve been there for three weeks or longer,” illegal under the 1997 Flores agreement, which mandates CBP to 72 hours. The children were largely “from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. There are a few from Ecuador, one from Peru.” Most tragically: almost every child the team spoke to came accompanied but was separated from their adult family member or parent. “We don’t know where the parents are being kept,” the attorneys wrote. If pro bono attorneys who are familiar with our legal system and English can’t find the missing parents, the refugees stand less chance.

Even when “transporting the toddlers and the preschoolers, they are not putting them in infant seats or booster seats, and they are driving along Texas highways,” stated Binford, aghast at the criminal negligence. “All of these children are in government custody, and those very basic standards are being violated. The United States is taking children away from their family unit and reclassifying them as unaccompanied children. But they were not unaccompanied children.” Binford said these children are still “not safe.” “It is so frustrating to hear the current Administration talking about the rule of law when they flout the rule of law right and left.”[20]

In Feb. 2019 came more damning news: “Over 5,800 complaints of sexual abuse from unaccompanied minors” in U.S. custody were reported to ORR, HHS and DOJ in four years, between 2014 and 2018. [21] The data, reflecting 5,859 cases of reported sexual abuse and harassment, was released “on Capitol Hill by the Florida Democratic representative Ted Deutch’s office,” Guardian reported. “Allegations ranged from adult staff members having relationships with minors and the showing of pornographic videos, to forcible touching.” The abuse, reported to and documented by the Dept. of Health and Human Services for years, dated back to “October 2015, during the Obama administration. However, most of the sexual abuse and harassment reported occurred since Donald Trump took office,” noted Guardian.

“These documents tell us that there is a problem with adults, employees of HHS, sexually abusing children,” Rep. Deutch said.”[22] At a hearing on the effects of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy, Deutch testified: “I am deeply concerned with documents that have been turned over by HHS that record a high number of sexual assaults on unaccompanied children in the custody of the Office of Refugee and Resettlement… these documents detail an environment of systemic sexual assaults by staff on unaccompanied children.”[23] With thousands of family separations occurring at the border, even of infants, ICE policies continued covering up and granting greater implied impunity for abuse. Trump’s harsh immigration rhetoric may have prompted even more immigrant families to risk the journey, desperate to plead U.S. asylum before the wall went up and the door was permanently closed.[24] By March 2019, CBP commissioner Kevin McAleenan reluctantly admitted that detention facilities for immigrants had reached “the breaking point.”

As reported by WaPo in 2019: “By law, the minors should remain in CBP custody for the shortest amount of time as possible and not in excess of 72 hours. But CBP officials privately acknowledged Wednesday that they are keeping them in custody longer, in potential violation of a court order, because HHS doesn’t have anywhere to put them”; a situation leaving CBP with “no legal options.” HHS spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer said they were considering opening additional youth detention facilities, though illegal, “to handle an influx, as they also did under the Obama administration,” noting, “There are 12,000 minors currently in HHS custody.”[25]

Imprisoning youth is in direct violation of U.S. law regarding vulnerable refugees or children. The 1997 Flores vs. Meese decision made it illegal to imprison children, stating they must be released to an appropriate guardian and held in the “least restrictive” environment. Some 20 years later, our government keeps finding new ways to imprison more refugee children, sometimes for years. Instead of allowing immigrant youth to be reunited with a family member as soon as they reach our shores, recent Executive Orders allow U.S. agencies to detain these youth until their court proceedings. Even when toddlers lack any legal counsel, immigration judges decide whether the minor should be immediately deported or reunified with family.

Imprisoning children also defies international accords, such as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by every country except for the U.S. Our nation once prided itself a global leader in the protection of children. Our U.S. State Dept. began global Trafficking in Persons and Child Labor reports, forcing sanctions annually on countries that abuse of their youth and marginalized. How far we’ve come, from being the world’s most powerful advocate to being among its largest criminals.[26] The reason, as one can guess, is money. The average cost to detain immigrant children is $250 to $775 per day. Or more.

Imagine if instead of paying $250 per day to imprison traumatized children, we’d given $250 a week to the closest relative of that child to help care for them? U.S. leaders did the opposite. By the end of May 2018, Trump would be forced to rescind his “zero tolerance” family separations. But the abuse of these children, escalating sharply under Trump, began a long time ago.

In the private-run Texas Sheltered Care, in Nixon, Texas, overseen not by ICE but by the Department of Health and Human Services—HHS itself, back in 2008 nine Central American children “reported sexual and physical abuse while in custody.” This included being fondled and “forced to perform oral sex on one guard, and some were beaten by other guards.” Eventually one guard was convicted of sexual abuse, but initially the children who complained were, “denied food, made to sleep on the ground and deprived of access to medical care.”[27] Such abuse, over years, spread outward from HHS—the overseer, through ICE to private prisons.

As noted in Pt. I, parents in detention report being told their child is being taken to bathe but then never return.[28] The trauma inflicted on captive children is being expressed in myriad ways. Officials at the “Young Center, which receives federal funding to advocate for migrant children in government custody, documented cases of children who suddenly lost potty-training skills, forgot their native language, had trouble sleeping or regressed in other ways after being separated from their parents,” reported USAToday. Some captive children “believed their parents had willingly left them.”[29] One child-shelter caretaker from Michigan described her child center as “constant crying.” She received her youngest separated child, a four-month old boy from Romania, in Feb. 2018.[30]

In Houston, legal nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center focuses on representing women and girls in immigration proceedings. Its executive director Anne Chandler notes that ICE agents are refusing to give parents additional time to say goodbye to their children before separation or deportation. Even in one case where “the child started vomiting and crying hysterically.” Chandler says that instead, ICE agents “also threatened parents with additional charges if they did not let their child go.”[31] Zero tolerance appears to be zero humanity.

One father from Honduras who came to plead asylum was separated at the border from his wife and 3-year old child by CBP. The father was inconsolable. CBP observed the young father while in detention, “praying in the corner of his cell.” The next morning, Marco Antonio Muñoz “was found on the floor of his cell in a pool of blood. He had an item of clothing twisted around his neck, and the incident was recorded as a ‘suicide in custody,’” reported Vice News.[32]

“Family separations ramped up in the summer of 2017 when the Trump administration started a pilot program in Texas to charge all undocumented border crossers with criminal violations, a change from previous administrations that treated first-time illegal crossings as mostly civil infractions,” reported USAToday. [33] The new policy allowed for family separation even for breastfeeding infants.[34] No child was too young. Another Trump-era change: undocumented immigrants with criminal records were no longer prioritized for removal, as was done under Obama. Instead, mixed-status families of Citizens, Residents and more saw forced separations. In Immokalee, Florida, a largely farmworker community, forced family separations are so prevalent that the Immokalee Child Stress Center began giving group workshops and holding interventions to help children deal with the trauma of having their parent or loved one taken.[35]

USAToday noted that: “Migrant parents were transferred to adult detention centers to await prosecution while their children were transferred to the care of HHS.” Then these children, all of them traumatized, who might have come from CBP or ICE to HHS and ORR, then went to long-term nonprofit or merchant, for-profit child prison detention. Truly, what could go wrong. Despite the likelihood that infants and youth pose no real danger to our national security, are not flight risks and can safely be dispatched to a willing relative or guardian—relatives often waiting with knotted stomachs and open arms, instead American taxpayers pay outrageous sums so these minors can be moved about our nation, further traumatizing stateless youth.

April 2018, Trump made his zero tolerance stance official, announced along the border by then-AG Jeff Sessions. Within a few months it was discovered that 2,800 family separations had occurred along our border.[36] NBC News and others later learned that intentional family separation at the border began even earlier, by at least Oct. 2016. That’s one month before Trump was even elected. The “numbers provided to NBC News by the Department of Homeland Security show that another 1,768 were separated from their parents between October 2016 and February 2018, bringing the total number of separated kids to more than 4,100.”[37] Please understand, they don’t refer here to youth who came unaccompanied and without any support or guardian, but to minors purposely separated from a parent or guardian.

A federal order in June 2018 by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw mandated an end to family separation, that parents be allowed a phone call with their child within 10 days and that “all children affected by the ‘zero tolerance’ policy be reunited with their parents within 30 days.”

NBC News reported in May 2019 that of at least 3,000 families forced apart, HHS and DHS only had information for "about 60" of the parents. These findings confirmed an earlier admission “by the DHS Office of Inspector General last September. In a report on family separations, the IG said that conversations with ICE employees indicated there was ‘no evidence’ of a centralized database ‘containing location information for separated parents and minors.’" NBC reported: “Nearly a year later, as many as 55 children separated last year under zero tolerance are still in Health and Human Services (HHS) custody at shelters around the country.”[38]

In their haste to use family separation as a deterrent to immigration, neither DHS nor any other agency developed any clear way for parents to find or reunite with their children. Had these children been assigned alien numbers concurrent to their parents—the 9-digit ‘A’ or alien number assigned to every U.S. immigrant—as is common, international practice for all immigrant family units by every consulate and visa branch—parents would have been easily traced. Instead it appears they were purposely separated first, then assigned non-concurrent alien numbers, thus providing no way to adequately document parental data again. This willful negligence and intentional harm is monstrous in scope.

Parents searching for a detained or separated child filed lawsuits, as attorneys and nonprofits attempted to track the children down. There’s no way of knowing how many children were separated from their families because DHS didn’t collect even that data. "The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property," wrote Judge Sabraw. "Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process."[39] Errors so pervasive they appear as if done quite on purpose. 

There’s no way to take back trauma. There is no just or valid reason to explain endangering minors willfully or evading basic precautions against their jailers—especially in a land that champions itself Christian and civilized. There is no justifiable explanation as to why ‘family values’ should suddenly end at any border. There is no law that can bring back lost innocence or undo the fact that someone’s child or parent will never come home. But of all the inconceivable things, in this exceedingly bureaucratic nation, it shouldn’t be possible to lose even one child.

USAToday reported in May 2019 that despite the federal ruling preventing the separation of families along the border, there were “at least 389 confirmed child separations” since the June 2018 ruling ending it, and “immigrant advocates say more are occurring.” HHS and acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the separations were being done in “extraordinarily rare circumstances.” But with more immigrants deported, more children are separated from their parents and left behind. Immigrant attorney Erika Pinheiro in California stated “she constantly meets and hears of families who have been separated because the parents have been deported–even if the children are U.S. citizens… separations happen even for asylum seekers arriving at legal ports of entry,” Pinheiro told USAToday in 2019.[40] With the recent AP revelations, it is now impossible to know how many children arrived or left.

There are currently three family detention centers in the U.S., all operating illegally under U.S. and international law: one in Dilley, Texas run by CCA/CoreCivic that houses up to 2,400 “family units”; one in Karnes, Texas run by GEO Group that can house 830 family detainees; and the Berks County facility in Pennsylvania with at least 96 beds. Staffed by Berks County locals, Berks is paid and overseen by ICE. In Jan. 2016, Berks had its license to operate revoked by the State of Pennsylvania. ICE appealed the decision and has continued operating since without any state license.[41] In 2017, PA’s governor was still fighting DHS to revoke Berk’s operating license.[42]

Back in 2015, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson lied to DHS that Berks was in compliance with a federal order ensuring that average immigrant detention for those with children is 20 days or less. Except by then, most of the 22 mothers in Berks with lawful asylum claims and their children had been held there between 270 to 365 days. The youth ranged from 2 to 16 years old. Some children were described as “suicidal,” telling adults that “they are going to kill themselves if they don’t get out.” A doctor was able to conduct health screenings there in 2015 and found “behavioral regression” among youth; one 6-year old simulated choking himself with his ID lanyard in front of the doctor. This doctor also found that the mothers, “score extremely high for depression and for traumatic stress disorder and none of them were receiving care.”[43]

In 2015 the Guardian learned that 43 children were being detained at Berks. One of these minors, Catherine Checas, age 3 from Honduras, began vomiting blood. When her mother pleaded for medical attention for her child, she was told her daughter should “drink more water.” It took four days before Catherine was allowed to go to a hospital. Another Honduran girl, age 10, began wetting her bed in 2015. Documented by a Berks psychologist for months, he later recommended a urologist after writing in his log: “the impression she left on me and the interpreter was that her enuresis was related to nothing more than laziness." The child never saw a pediatrician while in ICE custody. Almost one year later, after her release and hospitalization, doctors realized she had “potassium in her urine.” Because of going for so long undiagnosed and untreated “both her kidneys are failing,” reported NBC Philadelphia in 2017.[44]

In 2016, the 22 captive mothers at Berks conducted an “indefinite hunger strike” to draw attention to their “indefinite confinement.” An attorney representing the Berks mothers said, “These are legitimate refugees.” The mothers wrote to the outside world and U.S. authorities, pleading for mercy. “In our desperation we have decided we will leave here DEAD OR ALIVE.” They were forced to end their hunger strike after ICE threatened to take away their children.[45]

That same year, in April 2016, a detention center worker at Berks was the first ever to be convicted of “institutional sexual assault.” Daniel Sharkey, married, was given a third-degree felony assault charge. He was found to have regularly sexually assaulted a 19-year-old Honduran detainee at Berks. Sharkey eventually pleaded guilty to “institutional sexual assault and was sentenced to six to 23 months in prison,” reported the Guardian. His sentence is less than the two years that many of the mothers and children at Berks endured imprisoned.[46]

Under current conditions of impunity for detainee abuse, the government continued requesting additional detainee bed space for children. In 2017, Trump was asking the Department of Defense to find space for 12,000 beds to detain families together along the border.”[47] “Throughout 2018, detention shelters asked regulators for permission to add more beds as the number of children in their care ballooned,” reported the Texas Tribune.[48] It must be noted that this rising need was not due to the sheer number of arriving youth but as a result of recent U.S. immigration policies. Of the detained children, “The total number apprehended crossing the border in 2018 was actually lower than the surge in 2014, when the Obama administration briefly refashioned military bases into temporary shelters,” reported CityLab after investigating.

By 2018, “Texas’ 35 state-licensed shelters had permission to accommodate up to 6,466 children,” according to the Texas Tribune. They note that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is the state’s governing body that allows centers to “house more children” by granting a “capacity variance.” As of March 2018, these Texas child detention centers were holding 5,682 youth and were at 88% capacity. “Those shelters, licensed as child care providers, have a long history of regulatory inspections that have uncovered serious health and safety deficiencies,” wrote the Texas Tribune, which after searching through state records, “found that, over the last three years, inspectors have discovered 468 health and safety violations at the facilities, which can each house anywhere from 20 to more than 1,400 children at a time.”[49]

In March 2018, another new child center opened: Casa Sunzal, run by Southwest Key, holding 100 youth age 16 and 17. Once a child turns 18, they are held with and considered adults, offered far less protections and subject to expedited removal. “Southwest Key Programs, the private contractor operating a converted Walmart in Brownsville as a shelter for more than 1,500 children, is the largest operation in Texas authorized to take in children separated from their parents,” noted Texas Tribune. Southwest Key, founded in 1987 to provide “quality education, safe shelter and alternatives to incarceration for thousands of youth each day,” was documented to be unsafe. “Inspectors found more than 200 violations at the group’s 16 facilities in the last three years, records show. In two instances, children were made to wait before receiving medical care—three days for a child with a broken wrist and two weeks for a child with a sexually transmitted disease,” reported Texas Tribune in 2018.[50]

The Guardian notes that in 2018 the HHS reports registered 1,261 complaints of sexual abuse of children in custody, “an increase of 192 compared with 2017.” While most acts of sexual assault were reported as being committed by fellow youth in custody, there were 178 sexual assault complaints against contracted detention staff. “The number of reported sexual abuse incidents involving staff against migrant children increased in 2018, with a total of 12 complaints filed in July,” reported the Guardian.[51] ProPublica studied abuse at detained children shelters and found: “Kids at shelters across the country were, indeed, reporting sexual attacks in the shelters, often by other kids. But again and again, the reports show, the police were quickly—and with little investigation—closing the cases, often within days, or even hours.”

ProPublica spent six months collecting “police reports and call logs concerning more than 70 of the approximately 100 immigrant youth shelters run by the U.S. Health and Human Services department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement.” They discovered hundreds of pages of “police reports detailing allegations of sexual assaults in immigrant children’s shelters, which have received $4.5 billion for housing and other services,” since 2014. “As the immigration system struggles to house and care for 14,600 children—more than ever before,” wrote ProPublica.

The police reports obtained in 2018 “revealed a largely hidden side of the shelters—one in which both staff and other residents sometimes acted as predators.” As a result of their exposure, “Several of the incidents have led to arrests of shelter employees or teenage residents. And in one particularly heinous case, a youth care worker was convicted in September of molesting seven boys over nearly a year at an Arizona shelter,” where he had been working “without a full background check.” After a statewide inspection in Arizona, ordered by their governor, two centers run by Southwest Key were shut down for failing to produce full background checks. HHS and the ORR directors refused to meet with ProPublica.[52]

One of the reasons child detention is so attractive is how very lucrative it became: child detainees are worth much more to contractors than their parents, daily. While U.S. taxpayers pay an average $84 per day to house federal prisoners, private for-profit prisons charge taxpayers an average of $164 per adult immigrant imprisoned, per day. [53] Meanwhile, as Reuters reported: “’It costs approximately $250 per day to house a migrant child at a standard, permanent shelter,’ said Mark Weber, an HHS spokesman. But at an influx facility like Homestead, the cost is triple that—around $750 per day. It is covered by American taxpayers.”

In Tornillo, Texas a makeshift tent city went up. “Mary Gonzalez, a representative in the state legislature” where Tornillo is based said: “This installation is bigger than the town of Tornillo.” The cost to detain youth in the Tornillo tent detention facility was estimated at $750 per child per day. But an Associated Press investigation found, “Housing the children was costing $1,200 a day, not $775.” When Tornillo was forced to close in early 2019, CityLab reported: “The Trump administration had already spent 50% more than it had disclosed,” to the public.[54]

Human Rights Watch documented aerially as the Tornillo tent facility grew between June to September 2018, “from 28 to 101” tents, with a reported 3,800 beds. “With other shelters at capacity, migrant kids were being funneled into Tornillo in the middle of the night,” NYT and NBC News reported.[55] In return for the very generous profits, the nonprofit with the contract for running the Tornillo facility, BCFS, was somehow allowed “to sidestep mental health care requirements. Under federal policy, migrant youth shelters generally must have one mental health clinician for every 12 kids, but the federal agency’s contract with BCFS allows it to staff Tornillo with just one clinician for every 100 children,” according to an AP News report.[56]

But worst of all, no FBI fingerprint background checks were conducted on the “caregivers and short-staffing mental health workers,” hired for the camp. “None of the 2,100 staffers at a tent city holding more than 2,300 teens in the remote Texas desert are going through rigorous FBI fingerprint background checks, according to a Health and Human Services inspector general memo.” The HHS OIG memo from Nov. 2018 noted grave concerns that because Tornillo staff was approved without access to complete, national criminal records, this obviously heightened “the risk that an individual with a criminal history could have direct access to children.”[57]

By January 2019, Tornillo was being forced to close. It was only then that the public learned that guards hired for this delicate duty did not submit to FBI screening beforehand—a standard far below what every other U.S. institution, church or school adheres to in protection of our children so as to verify criminal or pedophile history. It seems incomprehensible that such basic precautions were not taken. Especially in light of the unsavory nature of some ICE and CBP Agents who passed FBI background checks before being hired to a sensitive federal position:

In 2014, South Texas Border Patrol Agent of seven years Esteban Manzanares, 32, “kidnapped, attacked and sexually assaulted three undocumented immigrants: a woman and two teenage girls from Honduras.” The older woman, her teenage daughter and another teen were attempting to turn themselves over to CBP and had flagged him down. When police arrived at his home to bring him in, they found Agent Manzanares, “dead in his apartment from what investigators have described as a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The missing teenager was there, too, bound and naked.”[58] Also in 2014, Salvador Contreras, age 50, noted as a Senior Agent at CBP, was arrested in Texas, “on federal charges of distribution of child pornography and attempting to entice a minor to engage in sexual activity.” Mr. Contreras, admitted to the charges and “called himself a sex addict.” He was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.[59]

April 2018 a CPB supervisor and Border Patrol agent of nine years, Ronald A. Burgos Aviles, divorced with two children, was arrested in Laredo, Texas after killing his girlfriend and her 1-year-old son.[60] Also in 2018, CBP supervisor and agent Juan David Ortiz, age 35, married with two children, went on “a 12-day killing spree,” shooting and killing three women and one transgender woman, all American and likely drug users, and “dumping their bodies along roadsides.” Ortiz was discovered after a fifth woman was able to escape. Described by law enforcement and federal prosecutors as a “serial killer,” Ortiz tried to commit “suicide by cop” but was apprehended by law enforcement and taken into federal custody with no shots fired.[61]

One can only imagine what supervisors like these allowed of other agents, day after year.[62] Customs and Border Patrol is “now the largest law enforcement organization in the United States, with more than 60,000 employees,” notes ACLU. The cost to maintain CBP’s massive, well-armed border presence: “FY 2012, DHS spent $17.9 billion on CBP and ICE. In FY 2019, CBP alone requested a budget of $16.7 billion.”[63] Though CBP agents aren’t all alike, it must be difficult to be a person of good conscience and witness violence, even off the clock. A Facebook group of CBP showed 9,500 out of 20,000 CBP engaged in graphic violence and misogyny.

In the case of the costly Tornillo Camp, OIG federal investigators warned that the “Trump administration had waived FBI fingerprint background checks of staffers” for this tent camp housing 2,800 migrant children. ProPublica interviewed Lisa Fortuna, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center: “If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine,” she said. “You have full access and then you have kids that have already had this history of being victimized.” The ProPublica records expose this devastating American tragedy. “These records challenge the Trump administration’s assertion that the shelters are safe havens for children. The reports document hundreds of allegations of sexual offenses, fights and missing children.”[64]

It will be a long time before we know the true extent of what these American immigrant children suffered. For those fortunate kids moved out of shelters and into a sponsor’s home: in 2017, HHS was forced to acknowledge that it “had lost track of 1,475 children late last year,” reported AP. One year later, after boasting of taking action to strengthen precautions, HHS was again forced to report in 2018 that from April through June they had lost track of an additional 1,488 children. When HHS attempted to reach the 11,254 youth they had placed with sponsors, 25 were reported as having “run away” and 1,488 simply “could not be located,” wrote AP.[65]

“Since October 2014, the federal government has placed more than 150,000 unaccompanied minors with parents or other adult sponsors,” reported the AP in Sept. 2018. It was an Associated Press investigation that discovered “in 2016 that more than two dozen unaccompanied children had been sent to homes where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay. At the time, many adult sponsors didn’t undergo thorough background checks, government officials rarely visited homes and in some cases had no idea that sponsors had taken in several unrelated children, a possible sign of human trafficking.”[66]

Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio expressed his concern for HHS’s inability to again find nearly 1,500 youth. “Many of these kids are vulnerable to trafficking and abuse, and to not take responsibility for their safety is unacceptable,” Portman told his congress members. Portman began investigating such cases of vulnerable populations ripe for human trafficking, “after a case in his home state of Ohio in which eight Guatemalan teens were placed with human traffickers and forced to work on egg farms under threats of death.” This case resulted in six convictions and federal prison sentences for those participating in their human trafficking.[67]

It used to be that in the illicit global economy, drugs and weapons came in first and second, respectively, while human trafficking came third. As a result of recent U.S. migration policies, never before has human trafficking so flourished. It now ranks No. 2, globally. “Human trafficking is the world's fastest growing criminal enterprise,” wrote Rhode Island State Gov., “valued to be an estimated $32 billion-a-year global industry. After drug trafficking, human trafficking is the world's second most profitable criminal enterprise, a status it shares with illegal arms trafficking. Sex trafficking can and does take place in every community, no matter the cultural make up, the affluence, or the location of a community. No community is immune from being affected by the exploitation of human beings for commercial sexual activity.”[68] That says quite a bit about all federal, state and for-profit detention centers, if not neighborhoods.

Though difficult to trace, trafficking today is likely in the trillions. The International Labour Org. (LIO) reported back in 2014 that globally, human trafficking generates “$150 billion a year for traffickers,” and that “1 in 4 victims of modern slavery are children.”[69] As a guest on the far-right-leaning OANN recently explained: with just four children, human traffickers can gain $1 million in un-taxed income, annually. The DOJ states the average age for these types of commercial-sexual-exploitation disappearances is 12; and they’re sold over and over again. It should be noted that unlike an adult, a minor forced into sexual slavery—commercial prostitution, has the life expectancy of about seven years. [70]

The ease by which U.S. pedophiles and traffickers navigate became apparent recently with the revelations of billionaire pedophile and repeat sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein, who was able to sexually traffic minors for decades, internationally. He evaded justice in Florida thanks to a “sweetheart deal” in 2008 by then-U.S. Attorney for Southern Florida Alex Acosta, who was later promoted to Labor Secretary by Trump. Alleged youth victims of Epstein formally accused Prince Andrew and Epstein attorney Alan Dershowitz, among others, of participating in their repeated sexual assault. “Jeffrey Epstein, 54, was accused of assembling a large, cult-like network of underage girls,” reported The Miami Herald, “to coerce into having sex acts behind the walls of his opulent waterfront mansion as often as three times a day, the Town of Palm Beach police found. The eccentric hedge fund manager, whose friends included former President Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Prince Andrew, was also suspected of trafficking minor girls, often from overseas, for sex parties at his other homes in Manhattan, New Mexico and the Caribbean, FBI and court records show.”[71]

A decade after his 2008 plea deal, Epstein was again brought up on charges. In 2019 while awaiting trial, he was found dead in his New York jail cell. Records show celebrities and dignitaries alike, from Bill Clinton to Prince Andrew, Duke of York, flew on Epstein’s plane, which he called The Lolita Express, or visited Epstein’s Pedophile Island, aka Orgy Island, in the Virgin Islands. Though Epstein owned this island since 1998, though locals had long reported the ongoing abuse of minors there, Epstein was able to continue luring minors there for sexual trafficking and abuse until 2019, even as a reported sex offender.[72] Two days after Epstein’s death in jail in August 2019, the FBI at last raided the island.[73]

The Miami Herald continues waging legal battle for the release of records, first with Epstein and now with Ghislaine Maxwell, alleged “madam” who “trained” the trafficked girls for decades. In response to Maxwell’s arrest, Trump responded, “I wish her well.” In both New York and Florida, Trump was personal friends with Maxwell and Epstein for decades, photographed at countless events. One of the girls trafficked by Epstein was taken from her job at Mar-A-Lago. 

The latest USDOL Trafficking in Persons 2020 global report found that U.S. trafficking arrests and convictions again went down, as did assistance to victims of trafficking and T-visas granted. USDOL did note: “The [U.S.] government took actions to address alleged complicity in human trafficking by government employees. Two active duty military officers were charged with sex trafficking. A U.S. naval officer was found guilty of sex trafficking. A municipal law enforcement officer was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for sex trafficking involving two children.”[74]

When the volumes written about this medieval chapter of our nation fully come to light, it will shock the conscience of our Founders and all those who possess a conscience. For an untold number, our awareness will come too late. Perhaps I’m sensitive to such depravity because as a first-generation immigrant from Argentina, I still remember when fascism began and our infants “disappeared.” Argentine grandmothers, Las Abuelas, through DNA tests, are still searching for and finding their grandchildren, taken by Argentine military in our ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s.[75]

It will take more than one U.S. ‘truth commission’ to uncover how deep and diabolical was our nation’s treatment of traumatized refugees, our most vulnerable neighbors, and their children. Recent book by NBC correspondent Separated: Inside an American Tragedy begins to cast a light on what, after lengthy investigation, was discovered. But the struggle to protect these children is far from over. The worst is happening right now, as you read this. By the time these institutional warcrimes end, for countless vulnerable children, it will be far too late.

[1] Gabriela C. Romeri, originally from Argentina, has an MA in writing from Johns Hopkins U. and a passion for immigrant and human justice. Her published work was featured in America the Jesuit journal, Dr. Eckleberg, by Orbis Books, Paycock Press and No More, among others. Her bilingual journalism for Maryknoll and Misioneros magazines won her national awards from the Catholic Press Association. She's worked for the past five years, in NY and then FL, to provide immigrant families with legal resources and translation during this critical time. Ms. Romeri currently volunteers for the Sarasota Hispanic Democratic Caucus of Florida.  






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Entradas populares de este blog

Los invisibles en tiempos de pandemia

El triunfo del trumpbismo