P O S T E D B Y A L B E R T
The mood in House 5 is somber. Eight children ranging in age from 14 to 17, three of them girls, sit patiently as a young lawyer reviews their rights. Several days or weeks earlier, the children, unaccompanied by family members, had been arrested at different parts of the U.S.–Mexico border attempting the dangerous crossing. They were fleeing the poverty of their home countries. They had come for work or to be reunited with their parents.
“How many of you are from El Salvador?” the lawyer asks them in Spanish. Four children raise their hands. “How many from Guatemala?” Three more hands go up.
One young boy who looks a little taller and fairer than the others explains as best he can that he’s Romani—a Gypsy—but also speaks a little Romanian. The advocate assures him he’ll be briefed later that day in his own language. The boy neither smiles nor frowns, but folds his arms and looks past the pink and blue curtains into the brightly lit courtyard outside the window. His eyes focus on a distant point as he struggles to piece together the meanings of the few words of Spanish he can recognize.
* * *
The children’s detention center in Phoenix is a series of squat, cinder block buildings with an adjoining soccer field and a small swimming pool, surrounded by a large metal fence. The facility is managed by Southwest Key Programs, an Austin-based nonprofit. Staff members, most of them women, do their best to care for the 130 children in their charge.
One of the most striking aspects of this facility is the complete absence of any Mexican children. According to Aryah Somers, a staff attorney with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, there’s a “gentleman’s agreement” between Mexico and the United States that all Mexican nationals apprehended at the border will be immediately returned to Mexico. According to reports, it’s common for unaccompanied children to be dropped off in Mexican border towns in the middle of the night and left to fend for themselves.
Before coming to this facility, non-Mexican children might have spent days or even weeks in border jails. Children have reported being deliberately mistreated while in Border Patrol custody. According to the Florence Project, these children
are handcuffed, forced to sleep on the floor without blankets or pillows, denied medical treatment, and verbally and physically abused. Children report that they are given only one piece of bread in the morning and a small taco at night, and then punished when they say they are hungry and ask for more food.
It’s worth noting here that only two countries—the United States and Somalia—have failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
* * *
The walls of House 5 are painted a dark blue and decorated with colorful maps and children’s drawings: a brown vase filled with shimmering red tulips; a bay of impossibly blue water surrounded by mountains; a young vagabond in a bright green sweater carrying a bundle on a stick. In one corner, there’s a cardboard model of a steamboat painted pink and white, with orange trim. A sign on the wall explains the etiquette of Reporting to the Teacher: look at the teacher, stay cool, tell what you saw, answer the teacher’s questions, say “thank you.”
A brightly painted phoenix hovers above the common area where the eight children sit quietly, listening to the advocate describe their rights. Two of the young girls sit together, supporting one another; a third sits apart. Five boys are spread evenly across two long sofas.
“How many of you know what human trafficking is?” asks the advocate. The children stare at her blankly, so she explains the concept by telling the story of a young girl who asks a coyote to help her cross the border. The coyote charges five thousand pesos, an impossible sum, but the young girl is able to scrape together a thousand pesos, promising to pay the rest later. Unfortunately, the border crossing is botched and the young girl is arrested. After some time spent in detention, she’s released into the custody of an aunt who’s a naturalized U.S. citizen. The coyote telephones the young girl, demanding his four thousand pesos. “But I was arrested!” she protests. He’s unmoved and threatens to kill her family unless she pays. He gives her a way out: he has a job for her, he says. So she gratefully accepts the offer—after all, she had come to the United States to find work. Things go well at first. But soon she finds that no matter how hard she works, it’s impossible to reduce her debt to the coyote. She thought she’d be working for a family, but instead finds herself in a house filled with strange men who abuse her.
The children’s eyes are glued to the sweet-faced advocate, their hands at their sides or folded on their laps. None of them volunteers his or her story—this isn’t the time, and it’s always better not to say too much.
* * *
I’m moved by what I see at the detention center, but even more by what I imagine these children suffered before they attempted their journey to el Norte. I think of the struggles of African American children in this country who grow up in extreme poverty, in violent, chaotic surroundings that slowly wear away at their sense of self-worth. I wonder how the young children in the detention center—some of whom never received a formal education—understand anything as abstract as a “right.”
What goes through their minds when the advocate shows them laminated photographs of the courtroom in which they’ll have their first hearing? of the kindly judge who speaks no Spanish? of the other judge who “has no hair and is a little more serious”?
I wonder about the national boundaries that none of us had a role in creating. Can it be possible for our moral responsibility to extend as far as Brownsville, but no further south?
Author’s note: I saw first-hand the excellent work of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. The organization will gratefully accept your online donation. According to the Florence Project, there are many alternatives to detention that include a combination of reporting and electronic monitoring, and that yield an estimated 93 percent appearance rate before the immigration courts. Your gift will support both their direct service and advocacy work.
Image source: The Medical Journal of Australia