ResourcesBlog

PHR sent teams to the U.S.-Mexico border. Here are eight things you should know and two things you can do.

1. There are now more than 12,800 migrant children detained in the United States.

The number of migrant children reported in federal shelters increased fivefold in the last year and a half, reaching a total of 12,800 in September 2018.  The staggering increase is largely a result of sponsors, to whom unaccompanied children are released, being scared away.

“The U.S. administration is using children as bait,” explains PHR’s Asylum Network program officer, Kathryn Hampton. “Sponsors, many of them family members of the children who may be in the United States undocumented, come forward to claim the children and are then arrested on the spot. So it’s no wonder that fewer and fewer people are willing to step forward and sponsor these children, and that the numbers of people detained are growing. It’s essentially a system of mass detention where you’re transferring children to unlicensed facilities, indefinitely, and then detaining their sponsors,” Hampton adds.

2. Some 1,600 migrant children were transferred to a desert tent city at the beginning of October.

In a clandestine, nighttime operation, some 1,600 migrant children were transferred from detention centers around the United States to a tent city in the desert in Tornillo, Texas, at the start of October. The center, which looks like a prison from the outside, lacks adequate standards and oversight mechanisms. This means there are no official systems in place to ensure that the children’s best interests are being looked after.

“It is simply unacceptable that children be held in these inhumane conditions, in unregulated camps which have no mechanisms for accountability,” said Dr. Ranit Mishori, PHR Asylum Network member and medical consultant.

“As health professionals, we wonder what goes on behind these bars, jail walls, behind the fences, and in the tents in the desert. We worry about the basic needs of these children – whether and how they are being met,” Mishori adds.

3. Clinical evidence shows that detention of any kind has negative health effects on children.

PHR’s Asylum Network is made up of more than 1,200 health professionals who do pro bono work throughout the United States – many with migrant children along the U.S.-Mexico border. Our work shows us time and time again that detention causes intense psychological distress in children, often resulting in developmental delays and other life-long symptoms.

Hajar Habbach, PHR’s Asylum Network program associate, visited a detention center in Texas with Dr. Mishori as part of a trip by human rights organizations and faith groups to deliver aid to detained children. “What really struck me was the contradictory setting in which we found ourselves,” she said. “This detention facility, the Ursula facility in McAllen, was across the street from a community baseball field. So, while we were delivering aid to detained migrant children who don’t have adequate access to water, food, clothing, or a proper education, the local children were playing little league baseball across the street,” Habbach added.

Said Dr. Mishori: “In addition to feelings of isolation, detention can cause or exacerbate trauma and contribute to ‘adverse childhood experiences’ or ACEs. Such experiences can disrupt actual brain development, alter the very architecture of the brain, which in turn can result in social, emotional, and cognitive impairment – which can last decades. Extreme and repetitive stress has a name – it is called toxic stress – and it is linked to an increased risk of developing chronic mental health conditions: depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and even physical conditions such as cancer, stroke, diabetes, and heart disease.

4. Clinical evidence shows that detention of any kind has negative health effects on children.

The Trump administration wants to revoke the Flores settlement that prevents the detention of minors for more than 20 days. Revoking this would essentially mean that children can be detained indefinitely.

“Not only do they want to extend detentions indefinitely, they are also attempting to legalize tent cities by eliminating the requirement for state licensing for detention facilities,” explains Hampton. “This would mean that children could be held practically anywhere – even in places where there are no proper mechanisms for accountability or for ensuring that conditions are suitable for these children. And they could be held there without any time limit being placed on their detention.”

Dr. Mishori adds: “The Flores settlement states that the children in custody should be ‘treated with dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors’, but I cannot see how dignity and respect can be honored when one is confined to a long-term detention facility. The decision to allow indefinite detention goes against the Flores settlement, whose sole purpose is to protect children from harm.”

5. The journey across the U.S.-Mexico border is a treacherous one, and most migrants don’t embark on the journey because they want to – they do it because they have to.

 “Many of those who decide to make the journey are fleeing abuse back home, including gang violence and domestic violence. They don’t want to leave their homes, they have to, in order to save themselves from violence and potential death,” explains Hampton.

Then, along the treacherous journey, they face similar threats. There are snakes and scorpions to contend with, and the water which collects in ravines is contaminated by the feces of livestock who roam the area. Those who drink the water are likely to experience vomiting and diarrhea, which dangerously dehydrates them further.

“Exposure to the elements is the major cause of fatalities, according to forensic reports of local medical examiners – but harsh border patrol apprehension practices, such as high speed nighttime chases with dogs and helicopters, also increase the risk of injury and death. Smugglers also may abandon their charges or deceive them about the difficulties of crossing, leaving them vulnerable and unprepared for the dangers they face,” Hampton added.

PHR Executive Director Donna McKay, who traveled to Texas in August, added: “Despite these threats, people are still deciding to make the brutal journey and the overall number of asylum seekers has not declined. More families are arriving with children than in previous years. The people I spoke with in Texas explained it this way: ‘If your house is burning, you flee. No matter what.’”

6. Hundreds of people die each year trying to cross the border.

In 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection counted more than 2,300 people, in just that year, who had to be rescued along the border. Each year before that, and every year since, hundreds of migrants have died while trying to make the treacherous journey in wildly variable temperatures which can exceed 115 degrees Fahrenheit in summer months.

“There are hundreds of fatalities every year,” says Hampton. “And some doctors, nurses, and EMTs are being arrested and prosecuted as ‘smugglers,’ just for providing urgent medical care and water to the migrants. Whenever migrants decide to embark on the journey, they know that they might not make it to the other side alive.”

7. There are still about 400 children who are separated from their parents.

It’s been more than three months since U.S. President Trump signed an Executive Order ending family separations, but today, some 400 children remain separated from their parents. In most of these cases, the parents were deported.

“What we learned was that many deportations take place under duress or through manipulation. In addition, more than 900 parents have been deemed ‘ineligible’ for reunification and stripped of their parental rights, despite the fact that the government has failed to demonstrate in any way that they were unfit, nor that they had committed any crime apart from irregular border crossing,” McKay explains. “These deportations result in hundreds of immigrant children, who have loving and caring parents, being forcibly orphaned in the United States. What’s even more alarming is that, as a result of the U.S. government’s failure to properly document separated families, many of these children are essentially lost in the system, which means they may never be reunited with their parents, ever,” she adds.

An internal report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security stated that Border Patrol took no measures to ensure that pre-verbal children could be correctly identified after separation.

8. Most detainees are afraid to speak out about the conditions in detention.

“When we walked through the West Texas Detention Facility, the conditions which we observed looked very un-therapeutic. It was clear that many migrants were being treated as criminals. Their crime: seeking asylum,” Hampton says.

“We met a woman who didn’t speak a word of English. She was actually from India, but had entered the United States via Mexico. She spoke only Gujarati when she arrived, but after a full year of detention, she had learned some basic Spanish from her fellow detainees. It was unclear which, if any, accommodations had been made to ensure that she would be able to access information about medical and mental health care in the facility, or to report complaints,” Hampton adds.

“We also met a counselor who didn’t speak a word of Spanish. Imagine trying to counsel someone for their trauma, including sexual violence, and not being able to communicate with them in their own language. What’s worse is that the counselor told us that correctional officers are the only translators available for the counseling sessions and are present when these sensitive doctor-patient issues, including sexual abuse, are being discussed.

“We saw a man who was locked up in a cell, under solitary confinement, for having mental health issues. I can’t imagine a less therapeutic environment, completely isolated in a small concrete room, with a trap door for food trays. We heard these stories time and time again, but people there told us that they are too afraid to speak up or to tell us more details. They kept looking fearfully at the door where the guard was standing outside. They’re afraid of being treated even worse as a result of complaining, or of having their asylum claims rejected if they speak out about anything. It’s a heartbreaking situation,” Hampton says.

Here are two things you can do, today:

1. Tell U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to stop the expansion of family detention at the U.S. border.
Click HERE to send a message and join our unified call to respect children’s constitutional right to protection and abide by the universal human rights principle of the best interests of the child

2.Tell Congress to investigation the harmful effects of family detention.
As health professionals, we know the severe trauma experienced by children in detention and we know the long-term physical and psychological effects. Click HERE to join us today in demanding that Congress immediately hold oversight hearings on the harmful and life-threatening detention facilities at the U.S. southern border. With thousands of children at risk, there is no time to lose.