We cannot escape our past; we can only improve our future

Guest Opinion//September 7, 2023

ICE, children, migrants, detention centers, border

A young child and his mother, claiming to be from Guatemala, cools down with a wet bandana and a bottle of water as they wait to be picked up by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol on Aug. 29, 2023, in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Lukeville, Ariz. Our current immigration policy violates international and domestic law. The third-country transit ban has been found unconstitutional but allowed to stay in place as it is appealed. (AP Photo/Matt York)

We cannot escape our past; we can only improve our future

Guest Opinion//September 7, 2023

For the second time, as a monitor for the Flores case that outlines conditions for holding minor children, I interviewed unaccompanied minors in an ICE detention center. Prior to Covid, I had done monitoring at the Yuma facility. The experience this time was the difference between noon and midnight.

The Yuma interview was at the height of the “cruelty for its own sake” reign of the former president. The facility was weighty with black-suited Department of Justice lawyers and beefy, crabby guards who searched every inch of my briefcase making comments about how much food I had brought for lunch (it was for the kids to eat). The guards maintained their surly miens as they dallied before bringing the children for their interviews. The conditions were abysmal.

The Tucson facility represented a different world. No DOJ lawyers appeared. The facility lawyer strode through the room each day for about five seconds to say “hello,” and that he would not give me the guards’ names. Fair enough as border patrol have a very bad reputation and some people might like to hurt them. No one searched my bag or commented about anything even when they saw the apples and bananas on the table. They even brought a case of water.

slavery, border, immigration, Mexican American, Maryland, Virginia, The National Conference of State Legislatures, U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, boarding schools, Indian Adoption Project, Child Welfare League, ICE, detention
Dianne Post (Photo by Martha Lochert)

The guards brought the children quickly, most of whom were wrapped in their one yellow blanket since it was freezing cold. Three times guards brought lunch for the kids as we were interviewing them, so the kids didn’t miss their food. Once the guard who appeared to be the boss saw that the food was not appropriate for a 1-year-old-child and went back and got pudding and a chewy candy bar. The child preferred to suck on my keys rather than eat anything – after he ate two bananas.

While the experience in Tucson was greatly different, the stories were much the same. Parents had come to the U.S. some time ago and were sending money back for the child’s support. But then the grandmother died, or the aunt married and moved, or the uncle went into the hospital and the child(ren) was left alone.

The other common story was gang violence. One young woman with a baby fled when her husband was taken by the gang. She never saw him again. The recent murder of a presidential candidate in Ecuador by gangs tied to cocaine production illustrates that the U.S. addiction to drugs fuels the gangs to the south just as Reagan fueled the Nicaraguan contras with cocaine shipped to Los Angeles.

Every child I interviewed had a close relative in the U.S. except for one boy who had cousins. Most of the families were intact (i.e. both parents were here working). Most children had come alone but a few had come with small groups of relatives and friends from four to 20. Two were teen mothers with children under age 3. Several children that we interviewed were sibling pairs. We talked to a 10-year-old boy and his 6-year-old brother; a 14-year-old boy with his 8-year-old sister; and a 16-year-old boy with his 14-year-old brother. One young boy crossed with his grandmother but was separated from her. Another crossed with his two older sisters, but they were 18 and 19 and separated from him.

All the children wanted to go to school and work. One wanted to be a veterinarian, one a fashion designer, and one very serious boy wanted to be a doctor so he could help people. Two wanted to be farmers. They were going to Wisconsin where their parents were working on a dairy farm and where young farmers are very much in demand.

The wall did nothing to stop anyone. Some crossed at a port of entry, some didn’t. Alone, small, and not speaking the language, the children had to be terrified and confused. The parents who sent them did not do so because they don’t love them; it’s because they do. The future for the children in their community is death or misery. Facing that, escape is the only shot the parents had to give their kids.

The U.S. in its decades of the Monroe Doctrine that justified police power to support authoritarian leaders in Central and South America caused much of the misery and upheaval. The U.S. supported military dictatorships over elected representatives seeking reform in Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1974, Nicaragua in 1990 and Cuba from 1933 to 1959, to name a few. NAFTA flooded Mexico with cheaply grown U.S. products and put the farmers out of business.

The chickens have come home to roost. We must focus not on trying to prevent migration – climate change will make that even more inevitable as crops march north to cooler climes. Rather we must reduce our military footprint and our support for violent thugs that we train in the re-named School of the Americas (one of whom organized the coup in Niger and named himself president). We must invest in women and girls as that is a proven way to lift the economy and culture of a country. We must focus on community groups that are trying to protect the environment and return to democracy, not support and train armed militants doing the opposite. The refugees don’t want to leave their country, friends, family, and all they know – they are forced to due to our past and present actions.

The short stay in Tucson for these children is not yet the end of the road but a stop along the way. Our current immigration policy violates international and domestic law. The third-country transit ban has been found unconstitutional but allowed to stay in place as it is appealed. The requirement to use a sophisticated phone app to get an appointment has been challenged as many people cannot afford, have access to, or know how to operate such a system. The backlog of cases must be cleared up and the illegal and inhumane practices of the governor of Texas stopped. We must humanize our immigration policy both in our practice toward the countries in Central and South America so that migration is decreased and in our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers not only to comply with law, but to comply with principles of right and wrong that define us as a people.

Dianne Post is an international human rights lawyer and a member of Uncage and Reunite Families, an Arizona-based, grassroots organization comprised of community activists, religious leaders and others advocating for justice and working for the release and reunification of children and families separated at the U.S. border and detained in different locations.