The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Migrant kids were stripped, drugged, locked away. So much for compassion.

The Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton, Va.
The Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton, Va. (Zachary Wajsgras/AP)
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WHEN ACCOUNTS of abuse emerged in June from a detention center for migrant minors in Virginia — children as young as 14 stripped naked, shackled, strapped to chairs, their heads encased in bags, left for days or longer in solitary confinement, and in some cases beaten and bruised — it sounded like a scene from the Soviet gulag. This institution, the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, near Staunton, couldn’t possibly be in America. And if it was, it had to be an extreme outlier — a place that, while overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services, simply could not typify the federal government’s handling of children, undocumented or not, who make their way into this country.

But abuses alleged at that jail in Virginia turn out to be no worse than those inflicted, on even younger children, at another facility under ORR’s purview in Texas. Last Monday, a federal judge, incensed that underage migrants at the Shiloh Residential Treatment Center, south of Houston, had been routinely administered psychotropic drugs without parental consent, denied water as a means of punishment and forbidden from making private phone calls, ordered undocumented minors there transferred elsewhere.

Not the Soviet gulag. These things are taking place in America.

The tools that normalized Japanese American imprisonment during World War II are being deployed against asylum-seeking immigrants today. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Gillian Brockell, Konrad Aderer/The Washington Post)

Not just coincidentally, it is President Trump’s America. True, documented abuses at both facilities pre-date Mr. Trump’s administration; at Shiloh, in particular, there have been harrowing reports of mistreatment for years. Yet the president, who has referred to illegal immigrants as “animals” and “rapists” who “infest” the United States, is a serial, casual dehumanizer of immigrants, particularly Hispanic ones. The signals he sends, amplified by Twitter, are heard everywhere. If unauthorized immigrants are vermin, as the president implies, then it’s legitimate to treat them as such — to tie them up, lock them away solo, dehydrate and drug them.

The most recent findings, concerning Shiloh, run by a private contractor and overseen by ORR, are shocking. Staff members there admitted they had administered psychotropic medication to children without bothering to seek consent from parents, relatives or guardians. Officials said “extreme psychiatric symptoms” justified medicating the children on an emergency basis — a fine explanation, except that the drugs were administered routinely in the morning and at night. (And sometimes the children were told the drugs were “vitamins.”) The children’s testimony led U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee to reject the government’s arguments, wondering how “emergencies” could occur with such clocklike precision.

Some of the minors confined at Shiloh, which houses 44 children, three-quarters of them immigrants, described abjectly cruel treatment, prompting the judge to order officials at the facility to provide water as needed to those confined there and permit them private phone calls. That a necessity so basic as the provision of water is the subject of a judicial order is a measure of the official depravity that has gripped Shiloh.

HHS officials make a point of sounding compassionate when they describe their concern for the thousands of migrant children under their supervision. Those fine words are belied by actual conditions in real-world facilities for which the department is responsible.

Read more:

Anne Applebaum: The dark history behind Trump’s inflammatory language

Eugene Robinson: The Trump administration kidnapped children. Someone should go to jail.

James A. Coan: The Trump administration is committing violence against children

Laura Bush: Separating children from their parents at the border ‘breaks my heart’

Ali Noorani: How we can follow our laws at the border — and still be a nation of grace