As an immigrant child in America, there are 3 ways to die

As an immigrant child seeking asylum in America today, there are three ways to die. You can die trying to get here — in the desert, without access to water, or attempting to swim the Rio Grande. You can die while waiting in Mexico to seek asylum at a port of entry. Or you can die in U.S. immigration custody — in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, succumbing to the flu, dehydration or a respiratory infection. 

President Trump is not the first U.S. president to detain immigrant children — and the Obama administration bears significant blame for an earlier family detention crisis — but the horrors unfolding under this administration certainly have been exacerbated, and in some instances created, by the policy and rhetoric of this president.

Trump has had asylum seekers in his sights since the campaign trail in 2015. Nearly every immigration policy his administration has rolled out has been an effort to deter asylum seekers from requesting, or winning, the protection to which they are entitled. Asylum-seeking children, in particular, have borne the brunt of these pernicious efforts. 

One early attempt at deterring asylum seekers at the southern border was “metering” — violating U.S. law by requiring migrants to seek asylum at an official port of entry, and then limiting the number of asylum seekers allowed entry each day. Waiting in this line — several thousand people deep in Tijuana alone — poses tremendous risk. Asylum seekers, especially children, are easy targets for kidnappers, traffickers, gangs and criminals. 

Without parents to protect them, and with limited space inside often dangerous and overcrowded shelters, children are in acute danger. Just before Christmas last year, two Honduran teenagers were murdered in Mexico while they waited for their number to be called to cross the border. 

Until 2019, children seeking asylum could be assured that, once over the border, they were safe at least from whatever dangers might befall them in Mexico. In January of this year, that changed. The so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols,” implemented by executive fiat, are now active in three U.S. border cities. The program’s Orwellian name belies its purpose — rather than protecting migrants, it puts the most vulnerable at significant risk. 

The protocols allow children and adults to cross the border only to attend court hearings. In between hearings, they must return to Mexico, often without food, shelter or the ability to work. Immigrant children recently were found crying in El Paso immigration court, begging not to be sent back to Mexico, for fear of what they would face there.

For children such as these, the wait in Mexico is insufferable. Fearful of returning to the countries they fled, and unsafe in Mexico, many travel to remote desert areas or attempt to navigate the Rio Grande. But the desert is unforgiving — brutally hot during the day, and devastatingly cold at night. What’s more, the U.S. government will prosecute aid workers who leave water in the desert, further endangering the lives of asylum seekers. In early June, a 7-year-old girl from India was found dead in a remote area of desert in Arizona, where temperatures hovered around 108 degrees. Crossing the Rio Grande is similarly grim. In mid-June, the river took the lives of three children, including infants and toddlers. Yesterday, a 23-month-old child drowned, tucked inside her father’s shirt as he attempted to ford the river.

Even if a child is lucky enough to make it to the United States, he or she runs the risk of dying in immigration custody. When children are apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), they often are held in what children refer to as “la hielera,” or “the icebox,” so named because it feels like being trapped in a freezer. Though a legal settlement agreement sets a 72-hour limit on this detention, children often are held in these border stations for prolonged periods.

As reported this week, hundreds of immigrant children were found in filthy, overcrowded conditions in Clint, Texas, where 8-year-olds cared for infants and toddlers, and preschoolers slept on concrete floors, subsisting largely on Kool-Aid and cookies. Government lawyers have argued that withholding soap and toothbrushes in these facilities satisfies the “safe and sanitary” legal standard for children held in detention. But amidst these conditions, it’s no wonder that seven children are known to have died in immigration custody since last year, after almost a decade in which no immigrant kids died in custody.

President Trump’s approach to deterring and detaining asylum-seeking children is to sow crisis and chaos. In this chaos, immigrant children will get sick and some of them will die. The president could change this. He could work with House and Senate leaders to come to agreement on funding for true humanitarian assistance, and vow not to direct such funds to enforcement. He could reinstate a successful Obama-era program that released children and families and paired them with caseworkers to ensure they came to court. He could channel more aid to Central America and Mexico. He could rescind policies that place asylum-seeking children at risk. 

Until then, we will hear more chilling stories. Asked to recall the experience of being jailed with other children, a 16-year-old asylum seeker who recently spent 48 days in immigration custody said her most impressionable memory is the crying. “The little children,” she said, including her 9-year-old brother, “never, ever, ever stopped crying.” 

Sarah Sherman-Stokes is associate director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program at Boston University School of Law. Follow her on Twitter @sshermanstokes.

Tags Asylum seeker children at the souther border Donald Trump Immigration detention migrants

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