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The Problem With Child Detention Isn’t That It’s Private. It’s That It Exists.

Child detention and mistreatment are long-established practices in jails run by U.S. Border Patrol.

Central American migrant families recently released from federal detention wait to board a bus at a bus depot on June 12, 2019, in McAllen, Texas.

The House passed a bill on Tuesday that would allocate $4.5 billion to cover the burgeoning costs of Trump’s internment of migrant children, teens and adults along the border. While the legislation was characterized as an “aid package,” Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ihan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib voted against the bill. In a statement explaining her position, Omar stated, “Throwing more money at the very organizations committing human rights abuses — and the very Administration directing these human rights abuses — is not a solution.” This congressional drama occurred on the same day that 100 migrant children were returned to a facility in Clint, Texas, that they had been removed from on Monday due to reports of squalid and torturous conditions. It was also announced on Tuesday that the acting head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection would be stepping down amid the growing scandal around the conditions at the Clint facility. As these events unfold at a chaotic pace, tensions are high and outrage abounds.

Outrage is an appropriate response to this administration’s depraved acts of violence and abuse. Unfortunately, the public narratives being spun around these events have often been woefully incomplete, and have too often echoed half-truths about the nature of what’s playing out in these despicable facilities.

One of the frequently repeated oversimplifications of these atrocities involves the claim that camps that the government has established and employed along the border are private detention facilities. In reality, these facilities are operated by Border Patrol, meaning these conditions are being imposed under the direct supervision of government employees and officials. While there are private currents of profit running through all of these facilities, the same can be said of every government-run prison and detention facility in the country. While politicians often depict “for-profit” as the primary problem with incarceration in the United States, usually citing the profit motive of companies operating prisons as being responsible for the egregious conditions therein, such conditions are commonplace throughout the prison-industrial complex, which includes immigrant detention facilities. As journalist Tina Vasquez has documented for years, immigration detainees have long been subject to solitary confinement, sexual abuse, the deprivation of adequate food and hygiene products, a lack of access to critically needed medical care, premature death, and a reckless disregard for their mental health, including conditions that have encouraged suicide.

All of the indignities and abuses being perpetrated against these children are rooted in pre-existing acts of torture and terrorization that have long been inflicted on detained immigrants in publicly and privately operated facilities. This analysis should not be construed as a minimization of the Trump administration’s violence, but rather a response to the urgent need, in this dark moment, to understand the lineage and influences at work in these child prison camps.

Private vs. Government-Run Prison Camps

While companies like GEO Group have rightly been targeted for profiting from the detention of children, Border Patrol’s detention facilities are all federally owned and operated. Unlike facilities run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), including private facilities, Border Patrol’s detention centers are exempt from state health and safety standards. Even within ICE’s network of detention centers, government-run facilities are no less horrific than privately operated ones. In 2018, for example, 22 women who called themselves “Madres Berks,” or “Berks Mothers,” went on a hunger strike due to conditions that prompted a 6-year-old child to wrap a lanyard around his neck and threaten to choke himself to death. The strike occurred in Berks County Residential Center, a public facility operated by Berks County through an “intergovernmental service agreement” with ICE. Like many of the families in the facility, Margarita Alberto and her son, the child who threatened to take his own life, were asylum seekers who had been held in the county-run detention center since 2015, when the incident occurred — long before Trump’s reign of terror.

Activists have campaigned for years to close Berks — where infants as young as two weeks old have been incarcerated — with some groups demanding that it be converted to an opioid treatment center.

Border Patrol is currently facing criticism for refusing donations of food and hygiene products for imprisoned migrant children. But as Theresa C. Brown pointed out on Twitter on Tuesday, such private donations are prohibited by the same laws that have prevented Trump’s border wall from being subsidized by private donations — a standard we should want to keep intact.

Our Feelings Are Getting the Best of Us

The knee-jerk acceptance of characterizations that don’t quite fit reality is an understandable byproduct of an overwhelming, emotionally charged political moment. But there are moments when we must wade through the severity of our emotions to ensure we are acting from an informed place as we oppose actions we recognize are morally abhorrent, lest we make demands that will not successfully undermine the monstrous policies that we oppose. To exceptionalize an atrocity beyond the bounds of its context will not help us create a roadmap to justice, even if it allows for impassioned arguments and “solutions” that may feel satisfying in the moment.

When faced with such attitudes and incomplete analysis, I am reminded of a woman who was greatly distressed by a Facebook post I wrote last year arguing that we must not allow our outrage about child separations to allow us to be cowed into accepting family detention centers as a solution. This person, who I had never met or had a conversation with, voiced that she was personally pained and hurt by the idea that we should not accept family detention centers as an alternative to separations because she had been protesting on behalf of separated children and was desperate to reunite them with their families. Family detention, she argued, seemed like the most realistic way to make this happen. Family detention, however, involves horrific human rights violations. Activists have fought for years to thwart the use and proliferation of such facilities. Instead of recognizing this full reality, this critic’s focus was clearly fixed on her own emotional experience of the story unfolding and her personal stake in feeling less upset by it.

While I understood how this woman had arrived at her perspective, I was nonetheless incensed by it. She was willing to accept the indefinite detention of entire families because she was personally invested in ending separations.

We must not allow our responses to the present crisis to mirror such a self-centered reaction to injustice. In this moment, that has rightly shaken many of us to the core, we must be both students and educators. We must put these children and what they are up against ahead of our own confirmation biases and avoid oversimplifications. We must also be cognizant of the injustices that preceded what we are witnessing, and who has and has not accurately represented that violence to the public. And we must embrace strategies that have potential to undermine Trump’s barbarous policies, and reject those that would further entrench carceral violence.

Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib were right to oppose a border spending bill that would further subsidize Trump’s hostage-taking. If we are to confront the evils at hand, we must do more than throw money at the very people who are spending $775 per imprisoned child per day — enough to house each child in one of Trump’s luxury hotels — on housing for children while depriving them of toothbrushes and adequate meals. No mechanism of state violence has ever been transformed into a just institution due to an influx of cash. The arguments of Democrats who insist that they must feed the system that has ensnared these children, for their own good, are consistent with their bipartisan complicity with the overall violence of the immigration detention system.

For too long, Democratic officials have managed to have their cake and condemn it too, by portraying themselves as battling the evils of incarceration while addressing only a fraction of the problem. It should be clear to us all by now that their political theater will not free incarcerated children. To meet that challenge we will have to uplift thoughtful, transformative demands, and strive to abolish systemic violence, rather than accommodate it.

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