Opinion

Abuse of immigrant children: a state-sanctioned crime in America?

A group of children hold up signs during a demonstration in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices, on June 1, 2018, in Miramar, Fla. The children were taking part in the Families Belong Together Day of Action, where demonstrators in cities across the U.S. protested against separating immigrant children from their families. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

(RNS) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions just unveiled the Trump administration’s latest assault on immigrant women and children: Denying safety to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. Having read the recently released report of violence and abuse against children perpetrated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, I am sadly not surprised by this newest policy.

CBP staff reportedly abuse children inside American detention facilities without repercussion and on our watch. We read that they:

  • Punched a child’s head three times
  • Kicked a child in the ribs.
  • Used a stun gun on a boy, causing him to fall to the ground, shaking, with his eyes rolling back in his head
  • Ran over a 17-year-old with a patrol vehicle and then punched him several times
  • Verbally abused detained children, calling them dogs and “other ugly things”
  • Denied detained children permission to stand or move freely for days and threatened solitary confinement in a small, freezing room for children who stood up
  • Denied a pregnant minor medical attention when she reported pain, which preceded a stillbirth
  • Subjected a 16-year-old girl to a search in which they “forcefully spread her legs and touched her private parts so hard that she screamed
  • Left a 4-pound premature baby and her minor mother in an overcrowded and dirty cell full of sick people, against medical advice
  • Threw out a child’s birth certificate and threatened him with sexual abuse by an adult male detainee
  • Worked to deport children without due process and via coercion

These horrifying details come from the U.S. government’s own documentation of violence, abuse and neglect against migrant children from 2009 – 2014, according to an analysis by the University of Chicago Law School International Human Rights Clinic with the ACLU.

What’s not in these 30,000 government pages is equally despicable: There is no evidence that this child abuse has been meaningfully investigated, perpetrators held responsible or substantive protections put in place to stop the abuse for recurring.

Reading the report, I can’t get the photos of the scandal at Abu Ghraib out of my mind. You know the ones taken inside the U.S. Army detention facility outside of Baghdad where Army and CIA staff illegally tortured Iraqi detainees, physically, mentally and sexually. Many had been captured because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and were found innocent of any crimes.

An image of a prisoner, Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, being tortured by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003-2004. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Several scholars have stated that the abuses at Abu Ghraib constituted state-sanctioned crimes. I think we need to start asking the same question about how we are treating immigrant children fleeing violence in their home countries. These children seek asylum and safety here, only to be greeted with physical, sexual and verbal abuse, and denied clean drinking water, adequate food, and medical care inside freezing and unsanitary facilities, according to these reports.

Where is the accountability and deterrence? Abu Ghraib resulted in the court martial and dishonorable discharge of  American soldiers. Some even served sentences in military prison.

No CBP officials have been held accountable. CBP denies every allegation, noting an Inspector General’s subsequent report did not observe child abuse taking place. CBP also notes that its sister organization, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has been subcontracted to do compliance audits of CBP detainment facilities.

Tragically, the situation for women, children and families is getting worse as evidenced by a flurry of recent policy changes.

This week, a new Justice Department policy denies asylum to women and children escaping violence. A policy announced in May has mandated separating parents from children at the border, resulting in 658 minor children forcibly separated from 638 parents and detained in shelters and foster care in just 13 days. The federal government, which does not have adequate systems and funding to track children, lost track of nearly 1500 of the 7600 kids it detained in 2017.

In just the last few months, this administration also reversed policy to begin routinely detaining pregnant women and putting their pregnancies at risk. A longstanding family reunification visa program is being mischaracterized as chain migration,” refugees escaping danger are being refused entry, and Temporary Protected Status, TPS, is being dismantled.

TPS allows people already in the U.S. to remain here when natural disasters, conflicts or other emergency conditions strike their home country and it’s unsafe to return. Ten countries had TPS at the start of the Trump administration. Now just four countries remain, and soon it may be two as TPS for Yemen and Somalia comes under review in July.

These new policies fly in the face of American family values and basic moral standards agreed upon by our faith traditions. They make political prisoners of women and children as our government dismantles immigration programs meant to reunify, protect or provide refuge to families. It’s sick and it’s ugly, plain and simple.

This strategy may be useful for stoking fear in Trump’s political base, but government propaganda that dehumanizes immigrants as “animals” permits an ongoing culture of abuse with impunity.

Don’t get me wrong. No administration, past or present, has clean hands here. But with documentation of alleged crimes against children now coming to light, the current administration must fully address these chilling reports, bring perpetrators to justice, prevent further abuse and discontinue this ugly scheme of family separation. Anything less is a grotesque loss of our nation’s morality and provides evidence that systemic child abuse by a federal agency has become a state-sanctioned crime.

Because CBS News obtained those horrifying Abu Ghraib photos, that abuse garnered the condemnation it deserved. We have no photos of children being molested, punched, kicked and stunned by U.S. government employees. But we do have clear documentation that we ignore or minimize to our moral peril.

We like to say, “We’re better than this.” Time will tell. But for now: Shame on us.

Shame on U.S.

Brian D. McLaren is a best-selling author, speaker, activist and networker among innovative faith leaders. A former pastor, he has written fifteen books, including The Great Spiritual Migration. He is an Auburn Senior Fellow, living in Florida. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

About the author

Brian D. McLaren

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