U.S. detention is harming refugee children

Last week, the state of Texas quietly issued a “child care facility” license to a family detention center in Karnes City, Texas. The license was issued despite the protests of attorneys, health professionals, and former detained individuals. While a temporary injunction now prevents Texas from issuing a similar license to the other family detention facility in the state, both centers remain open and the disgraceful practice of detaining child refugees continues.

Everything we know about detention, particularly indefinite detention, and especially of children, tells us that it is damaging to mental health: it produces surges in suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, and sometimes even psychosis. What’s more, the women and children currently held in these family detention centers are particularly vulnerable, having fled some of the most violent places on earth. Many fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have lived with such a high level of violence and sexual violence that some have never known anything else. Children learn at elementary school age that they could be shot or beheaded and left as a warning by the narco-gangs that rule their cities and neighborhoods. Often, both women and children face pervasive violence in the home, and those who leave home are at risk of labor and sexual exploitation by gangs and traffickers.  

In this context of high levels of organized crime and generalized violence, Central American governments appear helpless at best and implicated at worst. The net result is suffering, and, increasingly, an urgent impetus for flight. So every day, mothers pool resources from family and friends, abandon their homes, and flee north to the United States in an attempt to save their children, and in many cases, themselves. Yet what’s waiting for many in the United States is not safety, but detention. Families are separated, and the fear or anxiety that motivated the flight is heightened in many. Children’s mental and physical health deteriorates alarmingly quickly.

This reality is clear to the volunteer clinicians in Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) Asylum Network who conduct pro bono forensic evaluations of asylum seekers. These evaluations are crucial in the documentation of physical and psychological harm from persecution, and can mean the difference between asylum and deportation. But in documenting the cases of detained families, our evaluators see the unique and insidious ways that detention is harming these children: in numerous cases, rather than finding relief, children are withdrawing and growing more fearful and hopeless in the centers. Clinicians describe children deteriorating physically and displaying increasingly inappropriate behavior, including growing violent, withdrawing socially, and trying to breastfeed at advanced ages because they are desperate for comfort.

When you hear the stories of these children, and the circumstances of their detention, this outcome is not surprising. These children have lived through and witnessed horrific violence. One PHR volunteer met with a woman whose child, also detained, had witnessed her mother being repeatedly violated and beaten, and who herself was physically scarred from the violence in her home. Another volunteer documented a case involving a mother who had fled with her child following decades of sexual abuse. Another child had witnessed family members and neighbors murdered.

For many of these children, their mothers are the only adult they have ever trusted, and the person who brought them out of danger, often over a weeks-long or even months-long trip north. However, in the detention centers, the mothers are disempowered and can’t even tell their children when they will be released. The one person the children look to for safety is suddenly terrifyingly helpless. School is not a comfort – just a sea of changing faces as some children are released, some deported, and others join the class after having been captured at the border and detained. Faced with these circumstances, many children are simply falling apart.

Unfortunately, instead of working to end family detention, the Obama administration has worked to entrench the practice in the U.S. immigration system. The administration has continued to award federal contracts to run detention centers to private prison companies, like GEO Group, with abysmal records of abuse and neglect. And now the government is employing a regulatory sleight-of-hand, attempting to license family detention centers as “child care facilities” by fiat as a way to circumvent a federal court ruling that these detention centers are improper places to hold children. The administration has also argued that there is a moral case for jailing children, asserting that detaining and deporting families will deter parents from making the dangerous journey north with their kids. In reality though, it simply means that families will make repeated attempts to reach safety. No matter what deflection techniques the government applies, detention of children remains harmful, and must end.

Americans are right to object to the poor conditions and lack of oversight at family detention centers, and those centers should be properly prepared to provide safe and humane conditions. But there are no regulatory or policy changes that will make detention centers appropriate places for children. Detention, by itself, strips vulnerable children of their last means of emotional security, support, and sense of control, and it is time the federal government stopped this shameful practice.

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