Along the US-Mexico border, secret government facilities house unaccompanied children without the knowledge of their lawyers.
At least 2737 children were separated from their parents or guardians at the Southern border last year. The youngest person separated at the border was four months old and spent the first five months in custody. By the time he was returned to his parents he’d spent most of his life in US custody.
Under US immigration law, someone who’s seeking asylum can enter through a port of entry or may enter without authorisation, usually through pretty rough terrain.
When someone enters the US, they’re put into a border control station people have referred to as hieleras (iceboxes) for the past ten years because they are freezing cold concrete cells, says US immigration reporter Aura Bogado.
Following a surprise visit to these stations, a recent Inspector General report found intense overcrowding; a room designed to hold 12 people held 76 people. Another room with a sign outside the door reading ‘maximum capacity 35 people’ had 155 people inside, Bogado says.
These rooms also contain a bathroom. “Some of these places, the Inspector General found, as people who’ve experienced these places have said, that it’s so overcrowded that sometimes 1 or 2 people may stand on top of the toilet – that’s how crowded these places are,” she says.
“We found that the Trump administration was using a policy known as ‘Zero Tolerance’ in order to prosecute people who’d been crossing without authorisation and in doing so the practice of family separation became widely used,”
Bogado found that a contractor, who has done defence in war zones, was tasked with taking children from their parents and then driving them to a vacant office in Phoenix Arizona, a couple of hours from the US-Mexico border, and holding them there for up to four nights.
“I peered through a window and I saw there was a box labelled baby shampoo and so that gives you an idea of the population that was in there. There was an inflatable bed on the floor, it’s just an otherwise empty office.”
She says it’s troubling that a defence contractor crowded into kids these offices.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement don’t usually have oversight of children, she says, they may go into the ‘iceboxes’ and are supposed to be transported to a shelter. What happened instead is between being transported to a shelter, the defence contractor on Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s behalf didn’t have the space for the children, she says. Instead of doing what their contract mandated – to put them into hotels - they kept them in the office buildings.
“These facilities weren’t audited at all, because this defence contractor was not supposed to be holding children overnight, that’s really clear from their contract.”
After researching the shocking conditions, Bogado set out to talk to some of them. That's how she found Wilson, a six-year old boy from Guatemala who features in the animated short 'The Office of Missing Children' - currently showing at the Doc Edge Festival.
“He very bravely told me that he knew that he had to go through this in order to get back to his mum and he did it, he did it like a little champ, but he’s six.”
While the 'Zero Tolerance' policy has since been reversed, today, around 15,000 unaccompanied minors are detained in the US in places ranging from tent cities to trailers and shelters.
“We do however have anecdotal information that families are still being separated, we’re just not exactly sure how widespread it is,” says Bogado.
The US government contends that it didn’t have any system to track the families that were separated, says Bogado. About 100 of the 2732 children separated from their families haven’t been returned, she says, a number which anecdotally she thinks may be higher.
“There’s a whole bunch of reasons why; it may be the parent was already deported and subsequent to that process decided that they wanted to give their child a chance at asylum in the United States, it may be that they weren’t able to track down the parent after deportation, it may be that the parent and the child were reunited then put in family detention facilities which also exist in the United States as a sort of web of different detention facilities in which children, adults and families may or not enter into and then are separated again.”
This is fundamentally a humanitarian issue, she says. “You’re talking about people who are fleeing unimaginable violence and instead of tackling this as a humanitarian issue it’s tackled as an enforcement issue.”