Jess Morales Rocketto is chairwoman of Families Belong Together. Brandon Wu is an organizer for Sanctuary DMV.
When attorney Laura Peña visited her client’s 7-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter at a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children, the desperation Peña encountered was so overwhelming that she could barely keep herself from crying. Her client, wrongfully accused of being a gang member, had been kept from his children for months despite a federal injunction meant to halt family separations. The two young children sat in front of her, emaciated, depressed and asking, “why can’t we be with our father?”
These are the type of traumatized immigrant children who would be warehoused in the 200-bed facility for so-called “unaccompanied minors” that the Trump administration has proposed placing in the Takoma/Takoma Park area and in northern Virginia.
Building these facilities in the D.C. area would normalize what this administration has done and continues to do to immigrant families: separating them, caging them and inflicting irreparable trauma on kids. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and other local leaders were right to stand up for the safety of children and refuse to be complicit in a system that uses children as bait. Yet a recent Post editorial attacked their efforts to block these facilities.
What the editorial failed to mention is that Dynamic Service Solutions, the company awarded the federal contract, has little experience caring for children. These D.C.-area shelters would be handing children over to a for-profit company with a poor track-record of keeping children safe, under the oversight of an administration that we know cannot be trusted with children’s lives.
Contrary to what the editorial suggested, the proposed facilities would certainly house children ripped from their family after they sought safety at our southern border. That’s because family separation never really ended, despite the Trump administration’s suggesting otherwise following significant public outcry. Like Peña’s clients, at least 900 children have been torn from their families the zero-tolerance policy supposedly ended. Administration officials have exploited loopholes to continue to separate families for reasons as trivial as a father with speech impediment struggling to answer immigration agents’ questions.
These separated children are then sent to facilities like the ones proposed for this area, as are children taken into immigration custody with a family member other than their biological parents. When children arrive at the border with an older sibling, aunt, uncle or grandparent, our government categorizes these children as unaccompanied minors. Often that adult was the child’s primary caregiver — a parent in all but legal title — yet they are traumatically separated. This administration is manufacturing unaccompanied children by using a narrow definition of family, traumatically separating children from their primary caregivers and increasing the number of children in custody by making it harder and more dangerous for them to be released to their families and communities.
Moreover, these facilities would likely hold children whose parents and family members have been targeted by immigration enforcement or are scared of repercussions of sponsoring an unaccompanied child, making it harder and more dangerous for them to be released to their families and communities. And let’s not forget that the children who reach the age of 18 are subsequently transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention.
The humanitarian crisis on our border needs a better solution than more and nicer cages. Genuinely unaccompanied children may need short-term care in an appropriate, licensed shelter until they are released to a sponsor, but that is not the intent of this administration.
This is an administration that seeks to bar doctors from visiting children’s facilities to ensure basic safety standards. It has made repeated attempts to dismantle the long-standing U.S. asylum system and ordered mass raids in Mississippi that tore parents away from their children on the first day of school. It recently announced a new rule that would jail families indefinitely. It announced it will not provide flu vaccines to those in detention on the eve of flu season — even though three children have died from the flu in U.S. custody.
It is good that Bowser has listened to the overwhelming opposition of D.C. residents to keep new facilities from being built. Children’s detention camps do not belong in our nation’s capital. They do not belong anywhere in our country. If we want children to be safe, we need fewer places where our government can imprison them, not more.