Allegra Love, founder of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project and an immigration attorney on the front lines of the migrant crisis created and exacerbated in large part by the US government, has just had enough. She wrote these words before the news came out of a sixth child — a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador — who died last September in an Omaha, Nebraska, of fever and respiratory distress shortly after leaving 7-months of Office of Refugee Resettlement custody. So I add that as yet unnamed girl to the litany that inspired Allegra’s reflections, which she shares here.
Five migrant children from Guatemala have died in US custody in the last five months. Not only is this horrible and sickening, but it is also really abnormal. My understanding is that children haven’t died in US custody in a long time, like decades long, and now we have five kids in as many months. What is going on? I have seen some basic coverage of this last death and many tweets and memes. But in case your news feed isn’t constantly filled with with articles about immigration, here is a rundown. Maybe if you know someone who really needs to be aware of this and understand it, you could share.
– Dec. 8, 2019. Jakelin Caal Maquin, age 8, dies of an infection after being in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody in New Mexico and Texas.
– 16 days later on Dec. 24, 2018, Felipe Gomez Alonzo, age 8, dies of the flu and infection in CBP custody in New Mexico.
-April 30, 11 days after he was apprehended by CBP, Juan de León Gutiérrez, age 16, died of an infection after being transferred to Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody in Texas.
-May 14, an unnamed 2-year-old died in the hospital after being in CBP custody in Texas.
-Six days later, on May 20, Carlos Hernandez Vasquez, age 16, died in CBP custody in Texas after having flu-like symptoms.
What is going on?
The first really important thing to understand is that these kids did not die in ICE custody. There are 1,001 reasons that ICE and ICE detention should be abolished, and certainly many people have died in custody. But these children died either in CBP or ORR custody. Knowing the difference is important. This is important because our outrage has to be anchored in an understanding of the complexities of immigration law. President Trump may not have a grasp on those complexities but his advisors most certainly do and should not be underestimated. Pressure can move things but only if it is applied in the right places.
Next, CBP isn’t really supposed to be holding people very long. The purpose of CBP isn’t long-term detention. In fact, with children, there are rules about how fast they have to be transferred. In the case of the last boy who died, the law required that he be transferred in 72 hours.
Next, the number of migrant families arriving to our border to ask for protection right now is really, REALLY high. Thousands of people a day. This is a lot for our government to manage. Certainly the high numbers make it very difficult to protect every single person who is detained. But here is the thing: CBP is not focusing on protection. CBP, along with all of the Department of Homeland Security, is focusing on law enforcement. Putting these two agencies in charge of the ongoing detention of asylum seekers is bad policy, because in most of these cases, they are not even enforcing any law.
These migrants, as I have mentioned every single time I write or utter a word about them, are not breaking the law. They are lawfully seeking protection from violence. Yet rather than protection, they are met with brutal policies designed to make the journey as difficult as possible. Protection would be apprehending someone and doing a full medical screening and holding them just as long as needed to ascertain their identity and their intention to seek protection in the US. It would mean making sure that while they are in the custody of the US government they have food, water, proper medical care, and a proper place to bathe and sleep. Instead, these people are put in the “hieleras“. If you don’t know what that is, do a Google image search with the terms “hielera CBP” (if you just put “hielera” you will get pictures of coolers).
We deserve to ask why treating people properly when they arrive on our border is impossible. And you should ask your congresspeople– tweet at them or whatnot and ask them. There are agencies both within the government and NGOs that know how to manage this sort of crisis. We put an enormous amount of resources towards this enforcement regime that is killing children. Why can’t we put it towards funding relief workers to help, as we do with hurricanes and tornadoes? I think the idea is that if we are too kind and humane to people arriving at our border, than they might continue to arrive. Well, guess what? We have been slowly turning up the heat on migrant families for the last five years and they are still coming in huge numbers. And they are dying. Maybe it is time to call our plan to deter migrants through tortuous policies a failure, and focus on protection, before more people die.
I hear congresspeople calling for more oversight and investigation. Oversight and investigation isn’t abolition. We need to do more than say the names of these children. We need to take power from CBP and put it in the hands of agencies that are not controlled by the President and do not have a political motivation to destroy migrant lives.