As attorneys collectively representing all immigrant youth in US government custody, we are often asked what it’s like to work with children who arrive in the US fleeing horrific conditions in their home countries. It is humbling work—sometimes traumatic, often painful—but also inspiring and transformational. The words, faces, and stories of the children we have met will stay with us forever.
One year ago, we visited the Donna central processing center in Donna, Texas—a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) temporary tent facility for unaccompanied immigrant children who come to this country often to escape extreme violence and oppression.
Donna was designed to hold approximately 250 people. But at the time of our visit, the center had over 2,100 children—300 of them under the age of 12. We met with dozens of these children and listened in horror as they shared their stories.
I’d just like to be with my Dad.
We remember a 13-year-old from Guatemala who had been there for six days. She was taken by Border Patrol agents and brought to the Donna Center with her brother, where they were separated. She told us she stayed in a big tent with nearly 50 other children without any recreational activities or other outlets to bring comfort. Surrounded by the sounds of crying, children tried to console each other.
“They tell me that I will go live with my Dad, but they haven’t told me when I will go. I have not seen my brother since I got here. I don’t know if he’s close by or far away. I would like to see him but they won’t let me. I’d just like to be with my Dad. I want to study and be able to have a big house. I’d like to buy some land and take care of it.”
I’ve never been locked up like this before.
We remember a 12-year-old who traveled for a full month to get to the US, crossing the Rio Grande on an inflatable raft she found left behind. She described sleeping on a little mattress on the floor in a crowded room with at least 40 other girls. The space was so tight she had to ask permission to move to avoid hitting the person next to her.
“The longer I stay here, the worse I feel. I’ve never been locked up like this before. I don’t get to go outside. I’ve only been outside one time in the past six days. The day I got to go outside was the best day for me.”
From when I wake up to when I go to bed, I am in the tent.
We remember a 13-year-old from Honduras who was detained for 6 days after crossing the border with other children. She was waiting to be reunited with her sister who lived in Indianapolis.
“I spend my day in the tent playing with the other girls who are near me. I have only been allowed to see the sky one time since I got here. From when I wake up to when I go to bed, I am in the tent. It’s boring to be here. I’d rather be with my sister who is waiting for me. I would like to be studying. I would like to be a doctor so I can help people.”
I’m hungry all the time.
We remember a 16-year-old boy and his 10-year-old sister who fled to the US together. They were forcibly separated shortly after arriving at the facility. They clung to each other, clearly desperate to stay together. The boy described staying in a cell with 78 other kids.
“We get some food, but it’s not enough, just bread, fruit, and juice… I’m hungry all the time. I was here 4 days without getting to take a shower. I was still dirty from the journey here. My pants were covered in sediments from the river.”
It is hard to describe our feelings that day as we watched child after child walk into the trailer. Terrified children, their clothes covered in dirt from their long journeys traversing mountains, bodies of water, and deserts, only to find themselves in prison-like conditions where their basic needs were unmet.
These are children. Children just like ours, just like yours. No one’s child should be treated this way. No adult should allow it.
The anniversary of our visit comes as our government continues to hold some children in facilities that are inappropriate for any child. Donna was a humanitarian crisis, but there’s a long pattern of human rights violations against children in the US that continues today. And it cannot be ignored. America has a legal and moral obligation to provide children in its custody with proper shelter, food, recreation, and medical care. And to reunite them with their families.
Their stories may have faded from the headlines, but we still see their faces and hear their words. The US government must meet its responsibility to all children in its care.