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.
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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.
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