Edwidge Danticat: “We Must Not Forget Detained Migrant Children”

Danticat-Family-Separation-Border

Many thanks to peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] In “We Must Not Forget Detained Migrant Children,” Edwidge Danticat (The New Yorker, June 26, 2018) writes, “When vulnerable populations are kept hidden—which is the daily reality of so many of the undocumented in Trump’s America—they not only live in the shadows; they become slowly erased.” Here are excerpts:

One of my earliest childhood memories is of being torn away from my mother. I was four years old and she was leaving Haiti for the United States to join my father, who’d emigrated two years earlier, to escape both a dictatorship and poverty. My mother was entrusting my younger brother and me to the care of my uncle and his wife, who would look after us until our parents could establish permanent residency—they had both travelled on tourist visas—in the United States.

On the day my mother left, I wrapped my arms around her legs before she headed for the plane. She leaned down and tearfully unballed my fists so that my uncle could peel me off her. As my brother dropped to the floor, bawling, my mother hurried away, her tear-soaked face buried in her hands. She couldn’t bear to look back. We would not see her again for three years.

Some may assume that certain immigrant parents, because they leave their children behind, or send them alone on possibly perilous journeys, don’t love their children as much as, say, parents whose parental love is never tested in this way. When I was a teen-ager, I asked my parents about their immigration choices. If the lives of my brother and me had been in danger, or if they’d had no one to leave us with, they certainly would have taken us with them, they said. Though they would have never been granted visas if they hadn’t left us behind to prove that they had a reason to return.

Even the type of carefully planned separation that my parents chose tore their hearts out. Whenever they were eating, my mother used to say, they wondered whether my brother and I were eating, too. When they went to bed at night, they wondered if my brother and I were sleeping. Even though we spoke to them on a scheduled call once a week, they never stopped worrying and longing for us.

It is perhaps that ache and longing that made my parents take me to visit Haitian refugees and asylum seekers who were being held at a detention center near the Brooklyn Navy Yard when our family was reunited in New York, in the early nineteen-eighties. Back then, Rudolph Giuliani was the Associate Attorney General of the United States and the most vocal opponent of parole for twenty-one hundred Haitian refugees being held at different detention facilities around the U.S. After travelling to Haiti and speaking to Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, the dictator whom these migrants had fled, Giuliani concluded that the Haitians had nothing to fear and should be deported.

[. . .] At a children’s facility in Cutler Bay, Florida, which I used to visit with a registered volunteer, most boys and girls were waiting to be reunited with a parent or relative already living in the United States. Many of these young people had experienced such horrible trauma during their long journey from Central America to the U.S. border with Mexico that they could barely focus on the activities the volunteers prepared for them, which included gardening and crafts. Some had been detained for so long that they’d transitioned from childhood to adolescence behind those walls. Then there were the Miami hotels turned detention centers that immigration lawyers and advocate friends would allow me to accompany them to, places where women and children were being held for weeks or months at a time. Up to six women spent twenty-four hours a day in one room, often with crying babies and toddlers, while armed guards patrolled the halls.

One of the most distressing aspects of immigration detention, for both adults and children, is how invisible the detained can become, even when they’re imprisoned in our proverbial back yards. Had the world not seen the images of children wrapped in Mylar blankets and sleeping inside cages, and heard babies and toddlers crying for their parents, both as a result of the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, some might not have believed that these children had been yanked from their parents’ arms—one, reportedly, while being breast-fed. Even in the light of clear and horrifying evidence, many would rather hold fast to their willful denial, branding the cages sets, the detained children actors, and the detention facilities the equivalent of boarding schools and summer camps.

In May, an A.C.L.U. report produced from thirty thousand pages of official documents, dated between 2009 and 2014, detailed incidents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers verbally, physically, and sexually abusing migrant children. The cases cited include accounts of children being Tased, punched, kicked in the head and ribs. Young migrants complained of being denied food and water and medical care, of being strip-searched and threatened with rape and murder while confined to freezing and unsanitary rooms. Teen-agers detained at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, in Virginia, testified in court filings that they were handcuffed to chairs with bags over their heads and were left naked in cold concrete cells. Others, detained elsewhere, have reported being thrown on the ground in order to be force-fed or injected with psychotropic drugs. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has either dismissed or denied these charges. [. . .]

When vulnerable populations are kept hidden, or are forced into hiding—which is the daily reality of so many of the undocumented in Trump’s America—they not only live in the shadows; they become slowly erased. At the moment, everyone seems to be paying attention. But these families and children, and others who find themselves in the crosshairs of this Administration’s draconian immigration policies, will still need us to keep paying attention, even when the media coverage wanes and we are no longer seeing photographs of children in cages, or hearing recordings of their pleas and cries.

[Photo above by Spencer Platt / Getty.]
For full article, see https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/we-must-not-forget-detained-migrant-children

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