WHEN THE Trump administration, in May, embarked on its “zero tolerance” imbroglio, ensuring that toddlers, tweens and teens would be removed from their parents, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly was asked by NPR whether the policy might be heartless. “I wouldn’t put it quite that way,” Mr. Kelly replied soothingly. “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”
Now, as the government scrambles to comply with a judge’s order to reunite nearly 3,000 children with their parents by July 26, a sharper image has emerged of the cruelty to which those children were subjected. Notwithstanding Mr. Kelly’s assurances, the truth is that, for many children, detention without their parents is a dystopian detour into the pages of “Oliver Twist.”
Kindergartners and other small children prone to meltdowns have been repeatedly injected — presumably with tranquilizers — by staff at the shelters where they have been confined. Children live in terror of punishment, which is regularly threatened by staff, should hidden cameras record any misconduct.
Harrowing details of the conditions in which some children were confined were gleaned in interviews conducted recently by The Post’s Michael E. Miller. His stunning article did not come marked with a warning that it might upset parents, children or other human beings who chanced to read it, but it might well have.
A 10-year-old Brazilian boy, Diego Magalhaes, who was held in a shelter in Chicago, said he was made to clean out toilets — without gloves, he noted. Another Brazilian boy, Diogo De Olivera Filho, who turned 9 while in custody at the same shelter, was warned by staffers of the consequences of oversleeping. “They told me, ‘If you keep doing that, you’re going to have to stay here until you’re 18,’ ” he said.
Children were warned not to touch one another, and keep at arm’s distance from others, even if they were brother and sister. They were shouted at, sometimes by caregivers who spoke only English. Birthdays passed unremarked and uncelebrated. Phone conversations with their mothers and fathers were infrequent, if they happened at all.
One child said he attended classes that were unintelligible — the material was intended for older children. A second-grader said boys and girls, kept separated, would be punished if they approached one another. When children fell sick, they were isolated in a room with little to occupy them. Sandy Gonzalez, an 8-year-old Guatemalan girl, said her only diversion when she came down with conjunctivitis, and was isolated from other children at a shelter in Texas, was a memory game with cards. The only other available game was checkers — “and that was for two people, so I couldn’t play,” she said.
Now we know what Mr. Kelly meant by “whatever.” He meant that whatever neglect, whatever fear and whatever ill treatment to which children were subjected were the means by which the administration would justify its goal of deterring future migrants. Not surprisingly, most Americans — and a federal judge — have rejected Mr. Kelly’s callous view. But the damage, to children, their families and U.S. prestige, has been done — and continues to be inflicted on thousands of children who remain separated from their parents to this day.