Please note that the names and any identifying information about the children have been changed to protect the privacy of the children in detention in Juanita Molina’s account of her visit.
The management and care of migrant populations has become an increasingly complex and heartbreaking situation, especially now that we are seeing an unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors coming into this country. White House officials have acknowledged that criminal violence and ailing economies in Central America are the primary factors driving this migration. The thousands of unaccompanied minors held in National Placement Centers for lack of an appropriate shelter by government entities must be cared for and information about their status and well being must be made public in an appropriate manner.
Having developed a working relationship with the Tucson Sector of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), I was invited to tour the Nogales facility and participate in a discussion and evaluation process based on our shared values. It pains me deeply that the conditions of the National Placement Center in Nogales, Arizona, have been sensationalized in the media, and I want to give a first-hand account of what I saw during my tour of the Nogales facility. My reason for undertaking this visit was to witness the conditions and report on them to the community with the goal of finding solutions to this overwhelming problem.
Border Action Network (BAN) fully acknowledges the long history of abuses and human rights violations by CBP officers, and as an organization we address these issues on all levels, both locally and nationally. As a humanitarian organization, BAN supports the ACLU in its action to bring light to the violations against unaccompanied minors in detention. With this said, it is important to remember that institutions are composed of individuals with shared values, and CBP is no exception. Abuses and violations occur, but there are individuals in these institutions whose actions exemplify the values of our government entities and who endeavor to improve the human condition through their service.
I had previously toured CBP’s detention areas and had complied with all information requests to be properly vetted for this visit. The tour and briefing lasted approximately 5 hours. I met with Tucson Sector Chief Manuel Padilla and the commanding officers in charge, and I had the opportunity to engage with all officers and ask questions at each station of the facility. They provided a comprehensive overview of operations including protocols, procedures, and organizational flow charts. In a limited amount of time, CBP had created a holding facility to house approximately 1,300 children in temporary detention.
The Nogales detention facility, formally a warehouse, has been rehabilitated into a National Placement Center for unaccompanied minors brought by CBP from the Rio Grande Valley and those children apprehended in the Tucson Sector. I was given access to the medical triage station, food preparation areas, and holding cells. They had a phone bank and a holding area for the childrens’ belongings. Now that the administration has declared this a humanitarian crisis, CBP has started to broker the appropriate supplies through FEMA. The commanding officer confirmed that the children were fed every 6 hours, and that food and water was available upon request at anytime. Showers, bathrooms, and laundry facilities had recently been provided by FEMA, and the children were given access to hygiene supplies such as diapers and feminine products. The physical space is divided by 10-foot chain-link fences, and children are separated by gender and age. CBP officers try to keep mothers and siblings together whenever possible. The two largest holding areas house adolescent males and females separately; many of the adolescents appeared depressed, shutting out their surroundings under metallic blankets issued by the facility. It was apparent that the CBP was doing their best to meet the childrens’ physical needs, yet in spite of their best efforts, CBP personnel are ill equipped to deal with the emotional circumstances faced by these children.
Very unfortunately, the CBP has given people many reasons to question and criticize their behavior and the latest comments from the Border Patrol Union strongly reinforce the suspicion and mistrust with which the community has often legitimately viewed the Border Patrol’s actions and attitudes. From what I have personally witnessed, the views expressed in the Border Patrol Union statement are not shared by all officers and I have met many officers who have volunteered to work in the National Placement Centers. The improvements and attention to protocol originate from the personal determination of individual agents and are supported by the leadership of the Tucson Sector. CBP was transparent about every part of the process and communicated their profound desire to improve conditions and to contribute to the well-being of these children. It was evident that a policing force should not be put in the position of providing primary care to children in custody; this is especially apparent when it comes to meeting the emotional needs of the younger children.
During my visit with the children in the holding cell, I encountered several adolescent mothers who worried that their babies were sick. “Elena,” a 15 year old from Guatemala, held her 10-month old in her arms and said she was concerned that her baby was getting thinner. I asked what she had been feeding her baby, and she said the same beans that she ate, unaware that she was feeding her infant solid food that her digestive system could not handle. Elena tearfully stated, “I don’t know when I am going to see my mother. She would know what to do to take care of the baby.”
Then I noticed “Martita,” a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala, crying in the corner. She had been among a group of children found wandering on the border by CBP officers. I asked her what was happening, and she said, “I am in this place and I don’t know where my mother is.” She dissolved into tears. I took her hand, and she said, “I am lost and no one knows I am here. My mother will never find me.” I told Martita that I would never forget her and that we were all here to help her. The CBP officer with us reassured her that this was temporary and that they would help find her mother. “Martita” looked at us uncertainly; she, like all other children in the world, punctuates her day with routine and contact with loved ones. In this uncertain environment, she could only put her faith in us, two well-meaning strangers.
Our obligations as a society that strives for justice and equity are clear. We must care for these children and extend the appropriate level of care to ensure their emotional and physical safety. Close working relationships with CBP and other federal agencies foster the opportunity to monitor agency efforts and challenge them to hold the standards we hold dear as a nation. The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, stated this week, “It is hazardous to send a child…to a processing center. Processing centers are not places for children. To put a child in the hands of a criminal organization is no place for a child either. So yes, we provide a number of things for children when we find them…but it is not a desirable situation and I would encourage no parent to send their child through this process.” These children are the lucky ones because they are alive.
A community response is necessary because the extent of the problem goes beyond CBP’s mission and capacity. We as a community must offer support services to these children in order to preserve human life and respect the inherent dignity of each human being. We need to gather donations for their care, not just to address their physical needs but to support their emotional needs as well. You can support these children by sending donations to Catholic Relief Services and by expressing your concern to members of Congress to support adequate resources for dealing with this issue. We as a nation need to keep that promise to “Martita.” I know I will never forget her and will continue to advocate for every child in custody.