Horrific Abuse of Refugees at the Border Continues to Mount

| revcom.us


Two news stories this past week showed just how horrific the abuse by the U.S. of refugees at the border really is. One story pointed to the conditions faced by refugee children inside the border detention centers that are causing the unconscionable deaths of children in Border Patrol custody. The other exposed the widespread use of solitary confinement—especially on those diagnosed with a mental illness—resulting in suicides and attempted suicides.

The death of a 10-year-old child from El Salvador September 29, 2018, marked the first time in a decade that a child had died in the custody of the Border Patrol. This child’s death only became known publicly a few days ago; Homeland Security had kept it hidden for eight months. Since December, five more immigrant children have died, all from Guatemala, including a two-year-old boy who died from the flu.

Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, told Democracy Now! that the conditions they have documented of detention are horrific: “[C]hildren are dying because of the way the U.S. administration, the Trump administration, is treating these refugees and asylum seekers.” They found “children sleeping on the ground in the dirt, with no access to water and medical attention, very limited medication and healthcare.”1

Jennifer Harbury, a lawyer and human rights activist based in the Rio Grande Valley, went on in the same Democracy Now! broadcast to describe witnessing the impact on refugee children who had been held in detention. Harbury compared the conditions of the refugees she met in Reynosa, in northern Mexico, forced to wait to be able to request asylum in the U.S., with those she has seen after being released from detention in the U.S. to go to a migrant youth center: “[T]he difference in their health conditions is extraordinary,” she said. In Reynosa, they’re exhausted from their journey, terrorized by fear of being kidnapped at any moment in northern Mexico, but overall, they and their children are OK. This contrasts with how these children are after being released from detention in the U.S.:

By the time they come out of the hielera [“icebox”] ... almost all of them are really sick, with extreme respiratory problems, because they’re kept in holding cells with the AC cranked up so high, and then given no blankets, just those mylar ones, so that they just literally are freezing for days on end. All of them are seriously sick, the children with diarrhea and also, like I say, severe respiratory problems from the cold....

By law, children can’t be held in detention for longer than 72 hours before being transferred to a migrant youth shelter; yet at least one of those who died had been held for seven days. The border detention centers are overflowing; the McAllen, Texas, station normally holds 1,500 detainees, but it is now packed with twice as many. There are no hand-washing facilities, no showers. The smell is horrendous.

One woman, whose child was just recovering from the chickenpox, told Harbury, “ [W]e got it in there. And they kept us all together in the sleeping area. We’re piled all in on top of each other. And they didn’t take us to a clinic.” A Guatemalan man said, “We’re poor, but I’ve never experienced conditions like that in my whole life.”


The use of solitary confinement inside ICE detention centers is not a “last resort” but often the first and only option. This is the conclusion of The Intercept and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, who recently completed a one-month investigation of the use of solitary confinement inside ICE detention centers in this country. Even more outrageously, the report further found “in nearly a third of the cases, detainees were diagnosed as having a mental illness.”This widespread use of solitary confinement has resulted in suicides, and suicide attempts.

The investigators looked at more than 8,400 ICE incident reports over five years. They found that in at least 373 cases the prisoners were placed in isolation because they were suicidal and another 200-plus reports described people already in solitary confinement being moved to “suicide watch”—often in another solitary cell. Records described detainees in isolation mutilating their genitals, gouging their eyes, cutting their wrists, and smearing their cells with feces. They found that immigrants held in isolation cells had suffered hallucinations, fits of anger, and suicidal impulses.

In July 2018, a Guatemalan previously diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder committed suicide after 21 days in solitary confinement. His was the third case of suicide since May 2017, when a 27-year-old, also diagnosed as mentally ill, killed himself after 19 days in solitary confinement.

A 36-year-old transgender woman from Honduras, a longtime U.S. resident, was detained by ICE in 2017 and then moved to isolation in May 2018. The detainee, who spent 23 hours a day with no one to speak to, in a cell with just bare walls, a table, a sink, and a toilet, said, “You never know what day it is, what time it is. Sometimes you never see the sun.” After four weeks in isolation, she was told she wouldn’t be allowed to go to the yard. Two days later, she made a noose from a torn blanket and hanged herself from a ceiling vent. A guard cut her down before she suffocated. But after going to the hospital she was put in a different solitary confinement cell—with huge block letters across the door reading “SUICIDE SAFE.” She would spend 11 more months in isolation.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture has said that solitary confinement should be banned except in “very exceptional circumstances” and that isolation for more than 15 days constitutes “inhuman and degrading treatment.” People with mental illnesses should never be put in isolation, the rapporteur said. Under U.S. federal law, civil detention is not supposed to be used as any form of punishment. Yet solitary confinement is being used routinely.


Wholesale torture and horror is going on at the border. This is what consolidating fascism looks like. From the very start, the Trump/Pence regime has made the war on immigrants a linchpin and battering ram for imposing their whole fascist agenda. Immigrants are more and more demonized and criminalized. The fascists mean to carry out ethnic cleansing.

And a deafening silence has been coming from the Democrats. One lone congresswoman from Illinois, Lauren Underwood, confronted the acting head of Homeland Security—who was lying before her House committee about the deaths of immigrant children in detention—with the charge that these deaths are ‘intentional.” In a hearing where the majority of Democrats didn’t even show up, she was immediately given a “smack-down.” Her comments were “stricken from the record”; she was formally “admonished” by every Republican committee-member; and she was barred from talking during the rest of the session.

There have been no protests coming from the Democrats as a whole, and they are not going to confront and stop this horror.

The question for the people is: Where is our outrage? Nothing short of massive, sustained protest by people everywhere, aimed at stopping these crimes against immigrants—as part of the movement to drive this regime from power—can do it.

1. See, Democracy Now! May 21, 2019. [back]

The demonization, criminalization and deportations of immigrants.

McAllen, Texas Detention Center. Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection


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