It was the summer of 2014 when I finally realized what I was being asked to do: incarcerate children.
I was 22, new to social work, and working in Seattle at a 20-bed facility that houses 12- to 17-year-old immigrant youths. It’s funded by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
When I started there in 2012, I thought I’d be working in a therapeutic setting, helping empower refugee kids with basic life skills. I thought I’d assess these teens for trafficking and abuse concerns, then connect them with legal services. I imagined that the recorded testimonies I collected would help them make their case against deportation.
And I did spend my days listening. Some of my kids hoped to reunite with family; others ran for their lives. Their unwashed faces, small hands and foreign tongues spoke of harsh realities, occasionally in an indigenous dialect: Mam, Quiche, Mixtec. I learned that girls are told to take birth control pills before traveling to the U.S. in case of a likely assault. Yet they still traveled. I learned that boys are forced to carry drugs across borders under the threat of violence, and that smugglers mandate that families put up collateral (such as their homes) should minors fail to pay off debts of $5,000 to $10,000.
I thought, foolishly, that I could help them. I was wrong.
* * *
About 70,000 immigrant kids will show up alone at the U.S. border this year. According to Mother Jones, that’s a 59 percent increase from 2013, a 142 percent jump from 2011.
These children are fleeing instability, unrest and danger in their home countries (according to one study, 58 percent of the young people “had suffered, been threatened, or feared serious harm”). As Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), told Mother Jones:
This is becoming less like an immigration issue and much more like a refugee issue. … Because this really is a forced migration. This is not kids choosing voluntarily to leave.
Children from Mexico are sent back home. The others are held in Texas, or shipped to holding cells across the country, like the one where I worked. There, they await deportation hearings (the average wait is about 45 days). Many never have access to a lawyer (KIND estimates that only 50 percent of children are represented).
And the time they spend waiting is not pleasant. From my office window, I saw security doors, newly installed security cameras, alarms on every window and handfuls of keys that jangled from the belts of floor staff. There the children continue to wait, under 24-hour line-of-sight supervision. That is their world.
I recorded the children’s stories, built a case, and under weekly consultation with managers and an ORR federal agent, I reported often heart-rending bios of the kids, hoping someone would listen. The outcomes, recommendations and final release decisions rested in the hands of the federal agent. But federal decisions for deportation came into direct conflict with my values for social justice.
My experience with Agustin and Guzman Perez drove this home. (Their names have been changed for this piece.)*
The brothers arrived at my shelter on a Monday evening from Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention in Texas. They were haggard and unfed.
Agustin’s sharp ears angled outwards, away from his straggly black hair bleached from the sun to a light-brown thinness. He looked about 12. Short. Unwilling or unable to utter a thing. His swollen bare toes and blackened feet concealed the blisters that hid between his sandals. His eyes were aged with worry.
Guzman stood taller, and stayed close to his younger brother.
Dragging behind them were the chains locked around their ankles. Their wrists were tied together and against their waist in a continuous link. The government agent bantered with the shelter supervisor, then shoved the boys into the main office.
I imagined Agustin thinking about the journey that had propelled him across the border, recalling the superpowers that nudged him onward from Honduras, to hop several red-rusted trains. Perhaps he thought of the things that gave him the courage to elude extortionist Mara gangs.
“Agustin, do you play?” I nodded to the foosball table in the common area. A smile broke over his face. He knew the game well. “I’m Noe.” I fist-pumped an introduction. “Let me introduce you to the others.”
In my office, Agustin told me about the detention centers in Texas. Kids were crammed into rooms under bright lights and were forced to wait.
Kids like Agustin called the detention center “la hielera,” or “the icebox,” because of the blasting air conditioning in the arctic-chilled cells. Some children were left there for weeks; they described the smell of their own festering feet and urine that filled the spaces.
In Texas, an officer had told Agustin to put his face against the cold wall and to empty his pockets. Sometimes kids bring money with them. He pocketed the kid’s $10.
They were processed into jail with the dank clothes they traveled in, were not always showered, were provided with little food and little nutrition, and not always permitted physical exercise.
Where was the social justice in this?
* * *
As a social worker, I had the tools to help these brothers. In a perfect world, the children would be given the chance to be kids again, they would have the opportunity to go to school among diverse kids who value multiculturalism, and to lead happy and healthy lives. But that’s not how we treat them.
Guzman didn’t have his birth certificate. But using a medical bone density exam, the shelter determined that he was 18. Government officials would come get him, depositing him at a detention center for adults.*
The shelter door buzzed within the hour. My supervisor pulled Guzman away from his lunch and readied him for transport.
“It’s okay. I can walk him downstairs,” I said while I snuck an apple into his hand.
“Make sure he doesn’t run,” she said.
“Say adios to your brother, Agustin,” I said hesitantly. He rushed and hugged his brother tightly. I walked Guzman downstairs, where a government agent awaited with chains. “They can’t hurt you,” I told him, desperately. “It will be over soon. Don’t resist them. I’m very sorry.”
I brought him to the agent, and translated his comments for Guzman.
“Turn around. Hands against your stomach.” His thin ankles were locked close together. His shaking hands and his heavy breath were limited to the circumference of the locked chain around his waist.
I gave him $20. And he was whisked away.
The chain hissed and rattled beneath his waddling feet as he was hurried into an unmarked vehicle, destined to return to la hielera.
* * *
This is how we sustained the influx of refugee children into the country. I wanted no part of it any longer. In two months’ time I resigned from my job.
The van door closed behind him. I looked into the window and said nothing. He closed his eyes and quieted his anxious soul. A single droplet escaped from his long black eyelashes. I looked into the officer’s calm face, at his green uniform and pistol, and they sped away.
At the facility where I used to work, former detainees had scrawled the wall of one room with “Todos somos inmigrantes.” We’re all immigrants.
I wish we behaved like that was true.
* Correction: An earlier version of this story listed incorrect case ID numbers for the brothers Augustin and Guzman. It also misidentified the officer who came to pick up Guzman.