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At ‘Kids In Cages’ Congressional Hearing, Mother And Human Rights Advocates Share Stories Of Cruelty At The Border

Yazmin Juarez, who fled Guatemala and was held in detention at a facility in Dilley, Texas, where her baby contracted a severe respiratory illness that led to her death, testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

The hearing was titled, “Kids In Cages: Inhumane Treatment at the Border,” and Texas Republican Representative Chip Roy objected, indicating he was “frustrated.”

“It’s setting a tone that doesn’t allow us to come together to address this difficult problem in a way that is befitting of the United States and our welcoming nature as a country,” Roy complained.

He added, “To this day, I have never seen a kid in a cage the way those words seem to indicate it.”

On July 8, it was reported migrant children released from custody created drawings of themselves in cages. They were from children at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, and were drawn after they were asked to depict their time in detention.

The Associated Press reported on June 18, 2018, that children were held in cages in an old warehouse in McAllen, Texas. “Hundreds of children” were in a “series of cages created by metal fencing,” and “one cage had 20 children inside.”

New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked Juarez if there was a “culture of cruelty that she saw” when she was in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Juarez recalled how an immigration officer asked her why she came to the United States. She responded that she came here so her child could have a better future, but the officer would not let her talk. The officer informed her, “This country is for Americans. [President Donald] Trump is my president. And we can take your little girl away from you and lock you in jail.”

What the officer said made her cry. She had no words. “To me, that is mistreatment.”

Juarez did not recall any crude names used against her, but words used to address her were crude. She was called “immigrant” and not really given much of a chance to speak when officers talked to her.

“To have a CBP officer tell a migrant woman escaping unspeakable horrors in her home country and tell them this country is for Americans and threaten separating her from her daughter, threaten a human rights violation, is extraordinarily concerning and at a bare minimum grounds for serious investigation by this committee,” Ocasio-Cortez declared.

Juarez’s story made news in August 2018, when filed a claim against the “city of Eloy, Arizona, which is the primary contractor of the facility 900 miles away in Dilley, Texas, under an unusual arrangement between Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Eloy and CoreCivic, the private company that runs the facility.”

As Juarez stated, “My daughter Mariee and I fled Guatemala last year, seeking asylum in the United States. We made this journey because we feared for our lives in Guatemala.”

“The trip was dangerous, but I was more afraid of what might happen to us if we stayed. So, we came to America, where I hoped to build a better, safer life for us. That did not happen. Instead, I watched my baby girl die—slowly and painfully—a few months before her second birthday.”

“It is painful to me to relive this experience and remember her suffering. But I am here to do this because the world should know what happened to my Mariee. The world should know what is happening to so many babies and children inside these ICE detention facilities,” Juarez additionally declared.

She recalled how CBP put her in an “ice box” for four days. She was “locked in a cage” with 20 other people, including children. They were forced to sleep on the floor.

Later, Juarez was sent to the detention center in Dilley. Officers packed her and Mariee into a room with five other mothers and children. Sick children were not kept separate, and Mariee became ill with a respiratory infection.

Juarez shared how she grew terrified as Mariee developed a fever of over 104 degrees. She had diarrhea and vomited. She no longer was eating. They begged physicians to conduct more exams after they suggested it was only an ear infection.

“I tried to come back—multiple times. I’d wait in line early in the morning when the clinic opened with dozens of other mothers with their sick children,” Juarez said. “Twice I was turned away and told to come back another day.”

In painstaking detail, Juarez described how her “poor baby girl got sicker and sicker.” A doctor simply told her to take Pedialyte, ibuprofen, Zyrtec, and Vicks VapoRub (which can give kids under 2 years-old respiratory problems).

A doctor agreed to see Mariee the day they were transferred out of detention. ICE fabricated her record, saying she was “medically cleared” to cover up her frail condition.

Mariee traveled on a plane to New Jersey with Juarez. The next six weeks, Juarez tried to save her child, but it was too late. She died from a viral lung infection on May 10, 2018.

“Well, Are They Dead Yet?”

Multiple stories, like Mariee’s, were shared by witnesses, who were part of a second panel.
Michael Breen, the president of Human Rights First, told some of the stories he brought back with him from his visit to Ciudad Juárez, just south of El Paso.

“An 18 or 19 year-old stood up in a crowded immigration court, looked the judge in the eye with all the courage she could muster and asked him to get her back to her daughter. She’d survived a rape at age 13, and when she reached the border to seek asylum, she didn’t have the proper paperwork,” Breen said. “So she was separated from her five year-old, and then she was sent to CBP detention, the so-called ice boxes for 50 days, when guidelines say three.”

“The young woman was taken to Juarez, dropped off, and told to fend for herself until her hearing,” Breen added.

Another story from Breen involved a woman who requested asylum with her partner and their two children.

“They were taken to that now infamous makeshift camp under the bridge. After about three days in terrible conditions, her five year-old was too weak to stand. She told me she begged an officer for help,” according to Breen. “Help me, she said, my child is dying. She told me the officer replied, well, are they dead yet? Then shut up and stop crying.”

The woman, along with others, hailed the television crews outside the fence and asked for help. Soon, she was sent to a tent camp in the desert that was worse. They were informed the “conditions were punishment for trying to talk to the media and that if they tried it again things would get even worse.”

Her very ill child collapsed. She and her child were taken to a hospital and diagnosed with severe dehydration. When they returned to the desert camp, her partner and her second child were gone.

“No One Should Support Child Abuse As Immigration Policy”

Clara Long of Human Rights Watch shared stories from her time working on a team of lawyers, doctors, and interpreters, who monitored the conditions at Border Patrol stations in El Paso from June 17 to June 19.

On my first day at Clint [Border Patrol Station], I spoke with an 11-year-old boy who was caring for his 3-year-old brother. Both were fending for themselves in cinder-block cells with dozens of other children for three weeks,” Long said. “When I met them, the little one was quiet with matted hair, a hacking cough, muddy pants and eyes that fluttered closed with fatigue. As we spoke, he fell asleep on two office chairs drawn together. “I am the one who takes care of him here,” the older brother told us. “There was a teenage girl with curly hair who was helping me take care of him for a while. I don’t know her name. But she’s gone now. Now, no one helps me to take care of him.

A 14-year-old told our team she was taking care of a 4-year-old girl who had been placed in her cell with no relatives. “I take her to the bathroom, give her my extra food if she is hungry, and tell people to leave her alone if they are bothering her,” she said. “She has been sick the whole time I have been taking care of her, and is coughing and has mucous. She doesn’t talk hardly at all, just ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ She wears diapers and I change them for her.”

An 11-year-old boy detained with his 9-year-old brother and 7-year-old sister told us, “Nobody takes care of us here. I try to take care of my little brother and sister since no one will take care of them. There are little kids here who have no one to take care of them, not even a big brother or sister. Some kids are only 2 or 3-years-old and they have no one to take care of them.”

Long said the children at Clint were “visibly dirty, mucous or mud-stained, and nearly all wearing the same clothes they wore when they crossed the border. They told us they were not given regular access to soap or toothbrushes and were given access to showers only once or twice in a period of weeks, if at all. When they were given access to showers, they told us, they were limited to a mere three minutes.”

As Long made clear, “U.S. law prohibits holding children in Border Patrol custody for more than 72 hours in typical circumstances, and yet the children we met in Clint told us they had been there for weeks.”

“No one should support child abuse as immigration policy,” Long stated.

The Real Culprit Is The Policies Of The Trump Administration

More horrible stories were shared by Hope Frye, the executive director of Project Lifeline, who described how she led a monitoring visit to the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol stations from June 10-14. They happened to be there as the Office of the Inspector General was inspecting the stations.

These Border Patrol stations are significant because a federal judge found the government violated the Flores agreement by “failing to provide adequate food, adequate access to drinking water, adequate hygiene (bathrooms, soap, towels, toothbrushes), and adequate sleeping conditions and by keeping the temperature too cold.”

That was in 2017. Two years later, Frye declared, “The five basic needs of all people are still missing for children in CBP custody.”

“The administration would have us believe that the number of arriving children is causing the delay in release from CBP and the subsequent need to warehouse children in unregulated influx facilities, like Homestead,” Frye said. “But the real culprit is the policies of this administration.”

“The administration has slowed the rate of release from [Office of Refugee Resettlement] shelters by imposing restrictive and unnecessary requirements for the vetting of family sponsors,” Frye contended.

Dr. Carlos Gutierrez spoke of his experiences as a pediatrician who provides care to refugees from Central America. Back in 2014, they were able to work with Border Patrol and help deliver basic medical care. In 2019, the Trump administration will not allow Border Patrol staff to communicate with the doctors, probably because much of the medical help is contracted out to private firms.

“If we could get there right as [refugees] arrive at the centers, we could really make a difference and prevent a lot of catastrophes,” Gutierrez said.

Refugees arrive with medicine that is confiscated. They enter facilities and upon release, when Gutierrez’s team can provide them pro bono treatment, they must guess what medicines they have taken and may need.

Forcing Refugees To Remain In Parts Of Mexico Under State Department Travel Advisories

One of the worst aspects of current policy is the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) put in place by the Trump administration. A primary aspect of this policy involves forcing refugees to remain in Mexico while their claim is slowly processed.

The State Department’s own travel advisory for a section of Mexico near Nuevo Laredo warns, “Violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, is common. Gang activity, including gun battles and blockades, is widespread. Armed criminal groups target public and private passenger buses as well as private automobiles traveling, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments. Federal and state security forces have limited capability to respond to violence in many parts of the state.”

This is where the Homeland Security Department is “dropping off asylum seekers to fend for themselves on a daily basis,” Breen said. “MPP is a human rights violation. It needs to end immediately.”

The Trump administration was sued for imposing MPP, and in June, a group of asylum officers backed the lawsuit against the “Remain in Mexico” policy.”

“By forcing a vulnerable population to return to a hostile territory where they are likely to face persecution, the MPP abandons our tradition of providing a safe haven to the persecuted and –– violates our international and domestic legal obligations,” they argued.

Republicans like to suggest that U.S. immigration policy aids and abets criminal cartels to advocate for admitting fewer asylum seekers or migrants into the country and to excuse cruelty in camps and detention centers.

As Breen said, this is true, but not in the ways that Republicans are willing to acknowledge.

“Yesterday, in Juarez, I spoke with the mother of an eight year-old child. She had tried to present herself at a port of entry, follow the law, follow the rules, and say I seek asylum in the United States. She was told to take a number and wait her turn. They are taking about ten or 15 people a day on that bridge,” Breen shared.

Breen added, “She is holding number 17,000-plus. She is in Juarez because the United States government has seen fit under the obscenely Migrant Protection Protocols that she should sit in Juarez where cartels have absolute access to her family. Now, do you think she’s better off or do you think we are aiding and abetting the cartels where they can actively prey on her?”

Multiple times Breen highlighted the pilot program, the Family Case Management Program (FCMP), that was operated for a short amount of time. DHS operated the program in five metro areas: Baltimore/Washington, Los Angeles, New York/Newark, Miami, and Chicago. There were 954 participants. It achieved 99 percent compliance in check-ins and 100 percent compliance for court hearings.

Massachusetts Democrat Ayanna Pressley mentioned the FCMP cost $36 per family compared to $319/day per family member held in detention.

If Republicans were not committed to preserving ways for contractors to reap profits off humanitarian crises, there may be a greater push to restore this program.

Former Acting Assistant ICE Director Ronald Vitiello was the minority witness. He played loose with the facts and frequently spoke about a “catch-and-release” program. Breen confronted Vitiello during the hearing.

“These are human beings not trout. Presenting yourself at a port of entry to seek asylum is exercising your right under international law. You have not been caught. You have volunteered yourself. And being released implies that you will escape or attempt to escape, when again, on case management, 100 percent of these people showed up at their hearings.”

“Everyone I have spoken to is trying to figure out how to follow the ever-changing bizarre rules this administration is creating on the fly. They’re all trying to do the right thing so I think this language matters,” Breen said.

Countless times, the issue of human trafficking was invoked disingenuously.

“There has been concerned raised about trafficking of children in this hearing. I feel skeptical that this concern is real unless policymakers are ready to invest in having assessments made by people who are actually qualified to make those assessments.”

Michigan Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib acknowledged the Republicans have “every power to introduced legislation to address human trafficking issues that we all know do exist.”

And yet, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republicans have not taken such action because this is not really about human trafficking. This is about closing off the country to people who are trying to flee violence and seek safety from harm in the United States.

Watch the full hearing, “Kids In Cages: Inhumane Treatment At The Border.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."