OPEN LETTER: When Children Disappear


With our nation struggling under constant chaos, during a global pandemic, amid a warzone of political beliefs, all media focus in 2020 came off the most vulnerable: refugees and their children. Recent reports of detainee abuse while in ICE detention have emerged that show the reported abuse escalated in recent years; from rape to gang rape. While basic protections for the most vulnerable—American immigrant and refugee children—were not just lowered but seemingly eliminated.

This July, the Associated Press broke a story on unaccompanied infants and youth being held in hotels along the border. Rather than going through DHS and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), as U.S. law requires, a transport company named MVM, Inc. is reported to be taking these youth to hotels, for days or weeks at a time, prior to “deporting” them. “At least two 1-year-olds were held for three days,” reported the AP. “But some young children, including 3- to 5-year-olds, were detained for two weeks or longer. One 5-year-old was detained for 19 days in the McAllen hotel.”

As the AP reported in that July story: “The border agencies and MVM have been criticized for their treatment of immigrant children during the Trump administration, including wide-scale family separations in 2018 and the detention of children in squalid border stations in Texas last year.” Equally as disturbing: these minors are reportedly not being assigned Alien Numbers—the 9-digit tracking code assigned to all new immigrants. At this moment in U.S. history, Amazon tracks packages more efficiently than our entire U.S. government tracks children. Though perhaps that is the point.

Maybe I’m sensitive to signs of depravity because as a first-generation immigrant from Argentina, I still remember how fascism began. The media and government were loud in both protesting and inflaming growing violence just quickly as they invented scapegoats. More quietly, the outspoken among us and their infants began disappearing. Argentine grandmothers, Las Abuelas, through DNA tests, are still searching for and finding their grandchildren, taken by Argentine military in our 1970s ‘dirty war.’ Now, in the U.S.A., Angry Tias & Abuelas has formed, joining countless other humanitarian organizations in giving assistance to refugees and detainees along the border and across the nation.

Back in 2011 the U.S. was detaining over 429,247 immigrants yearly, with a daily ICE bed quota of 34,000 per day. That exceeds, in one year, all those detained during the U.S. Japanese Internment Camps of the 1940s, with around 350,000 detainees. The Donald J. Trump administration’s Jan. 2017 ‘termination of the catch-and-release border policy’ meant that those with lawful asylum claims could now remain imprisoned until their court hearing—which could take years. By 2018, ICE was subcontracting 70% of its adult detention to private companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group, which post annual profits in the billions. As the mass detention system continued ramping up, the DHS budget for 2019 grew to $47.5 billion. 

By 2019, the CATO Institute estimated, there were 510,854 detained that year. The DHS and ICE 2020 budget asked Congress for another $491.5 million for “51,500 adult beds and 2,500 family beds, for a total of 54,000 detention beds,” a daily quota. The DHS ICE 2020 budget requests another “$313.9 million for an additional 1,000 law enforcement officers and 666 support personnel.” That seems a rather odd and ominous request. 

ProPublica and the Texas Tribune exposed what female U.S. detainees reported most recently. In Houston a Mexican female held in an ICE facility back in 2018 stated that “she and two female detainees were moved to an isolated cell. Around midnight, three men wearing facial coverings entered the cell. They raped and beat them, according to the complaint. The immigrants were bused to Mexico hours later, where the woman eventually discovered she was pregnant from the assault.”

ProPublica went on to report that the spokesperson for CoreCivic, which runs that Houston ICE detention center, “denied the allegations” while the victim’s attorney said the “civil lawsuit is ongoing.” In El Paso a formal complaint was filed by a 32-year-old Salvadoran female detainee who said she “feared for the detainees still there.” The Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center director who filed her formal complaint commented: “’It’s awful to think how disposable these women are… They are especially vulnerable because many will probably be deported, making it more unlikely that their abusers face consequences,’” ProPublica noted. This is far more true for child abusers.

Basic child welfare policy once dictated no church or accredited agency dealing with minors in the U.S. was legally to be left alone with youth unsupervised. Yet transportation company MVM, begun by members of the U.S. Secret Service, is reported to now hold minors in hotels, transport them internationally and deny them legally mandated U.S. or international asylum protection. If neither MVM nor federal agencies are assigning refugee children Alien numbers, to properly track them, then there can be no real record of the end result of these youth. As of yet, we’ve no way of counting how many of those repatriated against their will were soon murdered or trafficked. Just as we have no way of knowing how many powerless people conveniently shipped back to their countries of origin were victims of abuse while in U.S. detention. The trafficking-in-humans business is booming.

The AP story on MVM holding youth in hotels reported: “Lawyers and advocates say housing unaccompanied migrant children in hotels exposes them to the risk of trauma as they’re detained in places not designed to hold them and cared for by contractors with unclear credentials.” AP noted an attorney for nonprofit National Center for Youth Law as stating: “‘They’ve created a shadow system in which there’s no accountability for expelling very young children… There really aren’t enough words to describe what a disgraceful example of sacrificing children this is to advance heartless immigration policies.’” While ICE declined to comment to the AP, Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Karla Vargas, representing a minor who was “detained in a hotel and later expelled,” made a statement to the AP: “‘The children with whom we’ve spoken say there are other children in the hotels,’” said Vargas. “‘We know that there are masses of children.’” Though where they are, and whether they’re alive, none can say.

As the AP investigation noted: “Before March [2020], Central American children who crossed into the U.S. alone were generally sent to facilities overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services.” These HHS facilities provided shelter, schooling and some access to attorneys. “Federal anti-trafficking law requires the government to promptly refer most children to HHS.” Yet, as AP noted, this June 2020, “While U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it made 1,564 apprehensions of unaccompanied children at the southern border in June, HHS says it received just 61 [minors]. CBP wouldn’t say how many children are expelled right away, how many are sent to hotels or how border agents decide between those options or referral to HHS. The agency referred questions about hotels to ICE. ICE said it uses contractor MVM Inc. ‘to transport single minors to hotels and to ensure each minor remains safe.’” The MVM contract with ICE for “‘transportation services’ extended for $49 million on March 31, according to federal contracting data,” reported the AP. “The company [MVM, Inc.] declined to answer questions.”

While detainee abuse and impunity was well documented for years, it has now reached new lows. One has to wonder how a supposedly Christian nation could lose all moral compass. Amnesty International, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the UN Refugee Rapporteur, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Migration Studies, the Women’s Refugee Commission and many others have for years raised the alarm on detainee abuse, negligence, rapes and other crimes constituting ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ A 2015 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stated that U.S. detainees are subject to “torture-like conditions.”

Rutger Law Review offered a most damning indictment, back in 2013: “The U.S. immigration detention system, the largest law enforcement operation in the country, operates with structural impunity resulting in the perpetual abuse of the detained population. There are no enforceable regulations and no accountability mechanisms to protect the nearly thirty thousand individuals held in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) custody every day.” Rutger also stated that ICE’s “culture of abuse” has resulted over the years in “dehumanizing physical, sexual and medical abuse. This structural impunity is exacerbated by the near total privatization of the detention system and corresponding restrictive Supreme Court decisions absolving private-prison companies of liability.”

At this moment, this largely privatized mass detention complex controls over 52,000 American immigrants, daily. While ICE plans, through its Alternatives to Detention (ATD) Program, to “monitor 120,000 average daily participants” more through remote electronic tracking technology. What a shame we couldn’t use such advanced tracking technology to track lost, vulnerable children. Let alone paper and a string of numbers. Tragically, it’s become exceedingly evident that ICE cannot police itself; nor does it police the abuse of families held in detention in the private prisons they contract.

The depravity of abuse within this shadowy labyrinth of shelters and private prisons is beginning to mirror horrors from nazi-led concentration camps. Parents in detention report being told by guards that their child is being taken to bathe, then their child never returns. Rather than assure traumatized refugee populations more protection, there was less. It appears that private prisons are exempt from FOIA requests, as per U.S. Congress. Brooklyn Journal of Law explains: “Private prisons are not subject to the same regulations as government prisons. Particularly, private prisons are exempt from the requirements set forth in the Freedom of Information Act and its state equivalents, which provide that the public has an enforceable right to request certain records from government agencies.” Due to this black hole of Federal oversight, the number of human rights abuses in these private facilities, of negligence, rape, beatings and suicides, escalated.

In Feb. 2019 came more damning news: “Over 5,800 complaints of sexual abuse from unaccompanied minors” in U.S. custody were reported to ORR, HHS and DOJ in four years, between 2014 and 2018. The data, reflecting 5,859 cases of reported sexual abuse and harassment, was released “on Capitol Hill by the Florida Democratic representative Ted Deutch’s office,” the Guardian reported. “Allegations ranged from adult staff members having relationships with minors and the showing of pornographic videos, to forcible touching.” The abuse, reported to and documented by the Dept. of Health and Human Services for years, dated back to “October 2015, during the Obama administration. However, most of the sexual abuse and harassment reported occurred since Donald Trump took office,” noted the Guardian. “’These documents tell us that there is a problem with adults, employees of HHS, sexually abusing children,’ Rep. Deutch said.” Even those fortunate youth placed with sponsors were not kept safe.

It was an AP investigation that reported, back in 2016: “First, the government stopped fingerprinting most adults seeking to claim the children. In April 2014, the agency stopped requiring original copies of birth certificates to prove most sponsors’ identities. The next month, it decided not to complete forms that request sponsors’ personal and identifying information before sending many of the children to sponsors’ homes. Then, it eliminated FBI criminal history checks for many sponsors. Since the rule changes, the AP has identified more than two dozen children who were placed with sponsors who subjected them to sexual abuse, labor trafficking, or severe abuse and neglect.” In a follow-up, the AP reported in 2018 that “in 2016 more than two dozen unaccompanied children had been sent to homes where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay… government officials rarely visited homes and in some cases had no idea that sponsors had taken in several unrelated children, a possible sign of human trafficking.” The AP also noted that while 150,000 unaccompanied minors were placed with parents or sponsors between 2014 and 2018, by mid 2018 the federal government had lost track of over 3,000 of these children. It will be a long time before we know the true extent of what these American-immigrant and refugee children suffered.

In the 1970s, the U.S. opened its arms to my mother and I, eventually allowing us to become citizens. It was distressing to learn, as an adult, the role U.S. military played throughout Latin America during these killing years. Even training despots, in the School of the Americas, in how to torture. We Argentines never thought fascism would begin among our own. I’m sure the Germans once felt the same. Americans should be very wary because if it can happen anywhere, it would be here. Clear warning signs: when refugee minors disappear and detained women report gang rape. When respected organizations and even members of Congress expose systemic state abuse and impunity. When children quietly disappear and no one can stop it.

COVID allowed Trump to close the border in the southwest to an estimated 43,000 immigrants seeking asylum. As this pandemic ravages our globe and U.S. COVID mortality reaches over 1,000 deaths per day, as it decimates the families in makeshift refugee shelters throughout Mexico, US prisons and detention facilities became a vector for spreading the virus. In detention, over 52,000 U.S. immigrant detainees could be wiped out, an estimated 14,000 detained minors, as well as 2.3 million incarcerated federal prisoners. Federal prisoners of whom roughly 70% are there for drugs or other non-violent offenses. These nearly 3 million U.S. captives sit in a petri-dish of inescapable viral contamination, as their voices and rights are silenced. 

With winter soon upon us, we should start digging graves now if we fail to protect our imprisoned in time. We will also need more than one U.S. ‘truth commission’ to uncover how deep and diabolical was our nation’s treatment of traumatized refugees and their children. But when the volumes written about this aphotic chapter of our nation fully come to light—and they will, I have little doubt it would shock the conscience of every U.S. Founding Father and all those who claim to possess a conscience. Though for an untold number, our awareness will come too late. 

When children quietly disappear, nothing else should matter.

Gabriela Romeri, originally from Argentina, has an MA in writing from Johns Hopkins U. and a passion for immigrant and human justice. Her bilingual journalism for Maryknoll and Misioneros magazines won her national awards from the Catholic Press Association. Her writing was featured in America the Jesuit journal, Dr. Eckleberg, Penn Union and published by Orbis Books, Paycock Press and No More Deaths, among others. She’s worked for the past five years, in NY and then FL, providing immigrant families with legal resources and translation during this critical time. She currently volunteers for the Sarasota, FL Hispanic Democratic Caucus.


This entry was published on September 12, 2020 at 2:52 am. It’s filed under child refugees, immigration, journalism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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