US and its moral obligation to those at the border

More than 1,500 men, women and children from the migrant caravan have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border; half are girls and women. Most are fleeing violence and poverty. All are seeking a better life. While they wait at the border considering their options, perhaps it is time to consider ours.

Many of them have already endured untold suffering. Many migrant women have been victims of sexual and physical abuse and many more are victims of abuse along the way — even the Trump administration has said that as many as 80 percent of women are raped on journeys north from Central America. Some are pushing baby strollers or carrying infants on their backs. For many, escape is a matter of life or death. 

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If they make it to the U.S., even if they claim asylum, their suffering does not end. I’m a lawyer and this summer I went to the South Texas Family Residential Center, about 80 miles from the Mexico border, to help women with their asylum claims and to bear witness to the human cost of our border policies.

There, inside the jail, clients told me how they were locked up, sometimes still wet from a river crossing, in chain-link-fence cages called “la perrera” (the kennel), or in “la hielera” (the ice box), a freezing concrete room. They might sit there for days. One of my clients, a 16-year-old girl, was not allowed to hug her 9-year old sister, because kids were not allowed to touch each other in the cages. 

This summer many moms were told they’d never see their kids again. Some were compelled to sign documents in a language they didn’t understand, unknowingly waiving their right or their children’s right to claim asylum. One teenage girl told me of cradling a baby in their shared cage, both alone and scared without their mothers.

Eventually the government might bring the parents and children to a family jail. The Dilley facility, where I was, is a series of portable buildings and tents in the Texas desert, nearly indistinguishable from the prison next door. It has fences, metal detectors and guards.

There, the mothers and children inside drink water from a jug that volunteers were told we should not drink from, the water having been polluted by fracking runoff. There was an outbreak of chickenpox while we were there and we saw many kids who were sick or covered in rashes. The medical care was a joke; cases of medical incompetence abound and one child has already died from a respiratory infection her family says was contracted, but never treated, in the facility. The Department of Homeland Security’s own experts issued a terrifying report on the harm to children it found in the centers.

If the migrants don’t make it to the U.S., they might spend days or weeks on the border, with U.S. officials turning them away before they can even reach the U.S. side of the bridge to claim asylum. There they will sit, with no shade, facilities, or food, until they make the perilous journey back to further danger, or fall prey to the border cartels.

We can do better than this. First, we must allow those with asylum claims to make those claims in court with legal representation. Second, in the absence of flight risk, families should be released — ankle monitors are a cheap and effective way to keep track of people. Third, instead of sending nearly 6,000 troops to the border — who can’t detain or deport immigrants anyway — we should send immigration officers who could keep families together, minimizing further trauma, while determining who is eligible to stay. Finally, we could offer aid to those who have risked everything at a chance for a better life.

We as a country must decide if traumatized moms, sick kids and baby jails are a good solution to the problem of the migrant caravan. It is true that not everyone in the group is a parent or a child; indeed, not everyone in the caravan is fleeing persecution and not everyone can stay. But for the sake of the parents, the children and the persecuted who are waiting at our border, we must choose policies that afford dignity, humanity and kindness.

Anne Gordon is a senior lecturing fellow at the Duke University School of Law.

This piece has been updated to accurately reflect building security.