By now it is an old saw, but a country must be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable people, not by how it treats its real estate tycoons. The powerful always do just fine looking out for themselves.
Marilynne Robinson one of America’s best and most thoughtful novelists one said she always thought America was generous country. Is it? Now she has her doubts. So do I.
Recently there have been deeply disquieting reports of the treatment of young children in American detention facilities at the US border. Few people are more vulnerable than they are. These were asylum seekers, not immigrants. That is an important distinction that many people fail to make.
The reports are about mistreatment of these young children arising out of reports of deficient clothing and hygiene, and inadequate food for them while their parents make claims for refugee status.
One child claimed she had not been able to shower for 3 weeks. Another had no toothpaste or tooth brush. Are these trivial?
American and international law requires that asylum seekers be housed in “safe and sanitary conditions.” That seems fairly simple and fair.
A recent videotape of a judicial proceeding in the US 9th District Court in which the Judge was asking a very uncomfortable government lawyer,” If you don’t have a tooth brush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, its not safe or sanitary. Wouldn’t every one agree with that?” The government lawyer could only stammer futilely in reply. She looked completely bamboozled. After that video went viral, the US Detention Commissioner resigned in embarrassment.
Christiane Amanpour interviewed Warren Binford a private lawyer and a Professor of Law at Willamette University in the US, on the issue. Binford had recently visited the facility where this occurred in Clint Texas near El Paso where we were driving a few months ago. Officials had removed 250 children from the facility because of the bad publicity. Later they moved most of them back.
To put the issue in perspective for us, Professor Binford pointed out “most of these children have family in the US. 86% of the children in such facilities in the US had parents or other family members or sponsors in the US. These children don’t even need to be in government care. For those 14% of children we need to have standards set for what “safe and sanitary” means. For the other 86% they need to be returned to their families, so that their families can care for them and make sure that they are fed, clean, and treated with the appropriate level of loving kindness that all children deserve.” Echoing the judge, wouldn’t we all agree with that?
Surely this is clearly true for detained children in the richest country in the world. Countries like Uganda and Turkey that have far more refugees than the US does can do it and they are much poorer countries. Why can’t the US do it? Or is it not as generous as it thinks it is?
Lawyers like Binford were given access to such facilities as a result of an earlier lawsuit brought in the 1980s. For the last 20 years teams of experts have been visiting such facilities and reporting back to the court about what they saw. They have also been directly from the children as well. The team went public (whistle blowers again) after visiting a facility only intended for 104 adults in facilities that, according to Professor Binford, are “notoriously squalid and inappropriate for children at all and they handed us a roster of children who were on site that day and there were over 350 children in this border control station. We were horrified! We immediately scanned the list and learned that over 100 of these children were young children, infants,, toddlers, preschoolers, and school age children.”
InWillamette Weekshe was quoted as saying “They are worse than actual prison conditions…It is inhumane. It’s nothing that I ever imagined seeing in the United States of America.” According to the Willamette Week, “They found a 10-year-old tasked by guards with taking care of a 2-year-old, children sleeping on cold concrete floors with inadequate bedding, inadequately treated flu and lice outbreaks, and children who hadn’t bathed in weeks, despite the fact the government had been warned weeks before of a scheduled visit.”
Binford also reported that they saw children “begging for food” because they were hungry. Her group identified a “child mother” who was there with her infant children. Many of the children were dirty and had matted hair and were crying. “They had not been given any fruit, or vegetables, or milk for the entire time they had been there. They were given instant soup, instant oatmeal, frozen burritos, and it was the same food every day, day after day. They described sleeping on cold floors, which was why they said they were so tired. They were sleeping on cement blocks. Some were sleeping on mats provided but the mats were too few so they were describing 6 children sleeping on a mat in order to protect as many children in the cells as possible from the cold floor.”
Even though Officials refused to give the team of inspectors a tour of the facility, later they found out children were being kept in a warehouse without windows. There they discovered 15 children quarantined for an influenza outbreak, but no one was actually caring for them. They also found children subject to a lice outbreak who were given 2 combs to share among them, something that should never be done. When one of those combs disappeared, the children were punished by officials taking away their bedding! One entire cell of children was forced to sleep without bedding as punishment.
According to Professor Binford, “There were just horrific circumstances everywhere we looked.” Things like that make conditions in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist look good in comparison.
I ask: is America a generous country? I know large numbers of refugee claimants have been showing up at the American border and they are having a difficult time. Why then don’t they allow the children to stay with their families and sponsors? Why pay significant sums to keep them in clearly inadequate government facilities? It makes no sense at all, unless there is something much deeper and sicker at stake here—like racism!