Migrant children are suffering in appalling conditions in migrant detention centers at the border. Here’s what’s going on and what you can do to help.

By Lisa Milbrand and Libby Ryan
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Border Patrol Agents Detain Migrants Near US-Mexico Border
Credit: MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, migrant families are being held in horrifying conditions in detention centers at the southern border. And years after a judge stopped the Trump administration's zero tolerance immigration policy that separated migrant parents from their children at the border, hundreds of families remain separated.

At United States Customs and Border Protection stations in Texas in 2019, children were reportedly kept in cells with open toilets and mats on the floor for bedding. The lights were kept on 24 hours a day and the temperatures are extremely cold. There have been reports of lice infestations and an outbreak of the flu (five infants had to be sent to intensive care). Reports cited little to no adult supervision and small children tasked with taking care of smaller children and babies. Supplies were scarce, with reports of kids without access to water, food, and basic sanitation necessities. Teen moms in the facility lacked safe water to clean baby bottles or mix with formula.

And as COVID-19 spread throughout the country, migrant families were still being held in detention centers—even after a court order that stated children must be released due to the danger of the virus. Their parents, however, had to remain in the detention facility.

The Texas border stations aren’t the only ones putting children through these traumatic experiences. There are reports of camps with similar conditions in Florida, Oklahoma, and more. Some of these border stations are jails, makeshift shelters, or tents. According to Buzzfeed News, in 2019, nearly a third of the 2,669 children in custody at the border were held more than the legal 72 hours; some had been there for weeks. Seven migrant children have even died in U.S. custody, as of 2019.

The Continuing Separations

An undocumented Honduran woman said that immigration officials took away her 4-month-old as she was breastfeeding—and she was put in handcuffs when she tried to hold on to her baby. A group of parents said they were told their children were being taken away to be bathed—and as the hours ticked by, they realized they weren't coming back. And another set of moms claims they could hear their children screaming for them in another room, and were powerless to go to them.

These were just a few of the hundreds of stories of families torn apart last year, after the government enacted a "zero tolerance" policy that resulted in the separation of every parent and child that comes across the border without proper documentation. More than two later, there are still children waiting to be reunited with their families (there are 2,737 children directly affected by the zero tolerance policy and there are nearly 50,000 cases of resettled immigrant children to be examined). In fact, a recent court filing by the American Civil Liberties Union showed that there are 545 children whose parents have yet to even be found.

The zero tolerance family separation policy officially ended in 2018 after a federal judge intervened. Migrant children are supposed to be kept with their parents. But children are still taken into custody on their own, even if they have guardians, such as older siblings, grandparents, or other relatives, in the United States. Border agents also separate children from parents who have an alleged criminal history, a communicable disease, or are deemed "unfit" or "dangerous" by the agent.

While the parents or guardians are placed in prison to await trial and possible deportation or apply for asylum status (seeking asylum is legal, but the process takes an average of 578 days, according to the New York Times), children are being sent to camps completely unequipped to care for them. And worse, in the face of a seemingly desperate need for supplies, donations are being rejected from detention centers.

Donations Turned Away

People moved by reports of children without diapers, toothbrushes, or soap were met with rejection upon trying to donate supplies to border camps. According to the Texas Tribune, last year, community members came to the border camps with clothes, medicine, and even bottles of water after hearing about kids wearing the same dirty clothes for weeks in detention, children forced to share combs to search for lice in each other’s hair, and drinking water that tastes like bleach.

Legally, Border Patrol can’t accept donations or spend money besides what Congress allots in the CBP budget under a law called the Antideficiency Act, a representative told the Texas Tribune. And in June 2019, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice argued in U.S. Court of Appeals that the government shouldn’t be required to provide migrant children in detention toothbrushes, soap, towels, or even showers. So many private citizens are left wondering what they can do if they can’t donate directly to the centers.

What You Can Do to Help

Many parents have been haunted by the stories of what's happening, and feel powerless to change it. But there are several things you can do to make an impact.

Donate

While donations of physical supplies won’t make it to the children or families inside the border camps, you can make monetary donations to groups helping immigrants and asylum-seekers.

There are organizations that offer free legal services to undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers, such as Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), the Migrant Center for Human Rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) matches children separated from their families with lawyers across the country who will represent them for free.

You can also donate to groups who provide short-term housing for immigrants and asylum-seekers recently released from detention centers or new to the country, such as La Posada Providencia and Annunciation House.

Many of these organizations also provide support and legal advice for family reunification—a difficult process that the government estimates will take two years to even identify the children to be returned to their parents. Other groups focusing on reunification include Together Rising and La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE).

Be Vocal

Send a letter to the editor of your local paper—or to your member of Congress. You can call them, too. Dial 202-224-3121 and the switchboard will connect you to your representatives. Sharing stories on social media keeps migrant families at the forefront of people's minds and may prompt others to take action.

Show Up

While the COVID-19 pandemic makes in-person volunteering more difficult, you can still show up for these families. Whether you can make a trip to the border and volunteer (RAICES and KIND are in need of volunteer lawyers specifically), or take action in your local community, you can attend a virtual or in-person rally, fundraise among your community, or set up a meeting with your government representative.

You can also volunteer and train to be a child advocate in with the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights in Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, Harlingen, Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York, or Washington, D.C. Advocates are matched with unaccompanied immigrant children. They meet with the child to discuss their legal options, go with the child to court, and work with the Young Center staff to be with them every step of the way throughout the immigration process.

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