Witness to a social crime: The reality of US immigrant child detention

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In the corporate media, political establishment and middle class “left,” the sound of sanctimonious appeals to America’s responsibility to defend democracy in Ukraine has grown deafening. Without a shred of critical thought, the Mighty Wurlitzer of war propaganda gets spinning. We are told that a Ukrainian government riddled with neo-Nazis is a beacon of democratic hope, that American bombs are being sent to save lives, that American sanctions which choke the world’s food supplies and throw hundreds of millions into the path of starvation are necessary humanitarian measures.

The biggest lie of all is that the US stands for freedom and democracy. As Vice President Kamala Harris said at the onset of the war in early March, “Ukraine is a country in Europe. It exists next to another country called Russia. Russia is a bigger country. Russia is a powerful country. Russia decided to invade a smaller country called Ukraine. So, basically, that’s wrong, and it goes against everything that we stand for.”

Recent history provides ample evidence of what American imperialism truly “stands for,” which is the destruction of the international working class on behalf of finance capital. The specter of American imperialism hangs over the populations of Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Serbia like the conquering general and aspiring dictator Caius Martius in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus:

These are the ushers of Martius: before him
He carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears.
Death, that dark spirit, in’s nervy arm doth lie,
Which being advanc’d, declines, and then men die.

The constant barrage of war propaganda provides the world with an opportunity to revisit in greater detail the historic relationship between the United States and its smaller neighbors to the south, in Central America, and the impact of a century of imperialist destruction that can only be called sociocide.

Claims that the worst “excesses” of past policy have been corrected are belied by the treatment of Central American immigrants, including children, who continue to flee these countries as a result of the destruction wrought by American imperialism.

For a brief series of weeks in 2018, the treatment of immigrant children in the US was an item in the national and international news. Hundreds of millions in the US and internationally were shocked and horrified over the treatment of immigrant children, many of whom had been taken from their families at the border. This was not the product of actions by local jailers or errant border guards, it was the policy of the federal government.

None of this can be spoken of today. The media and the Democratic politicians, including those who traveled to the border and feigned tears, ignore the great social crimes undoubtedly being committed by the US government. Instead they focus exclusively on those crimes which are allegedly being committed by the government in Russia.

This article is a contribution to the mountain of evidence depicting the immense crimes carried out by US imperialism within its own borders. Here, for the first time, the WSWS documents conditions at a child detention facility by extensively publishing the words of the detainees themselves.

This is an account of conditions at an immigrant child detention facility in October 2018, which the author observed as an attorney. Although three and a half years have passed since the scenes described here took place, they could not be more relevant to exposing the lies at the heart of the US war propaganda today. No government which implements such conditions as state policy has the right to present itself as a defender of humanitarianism. And though Trump was in office when the events described here took place, conditions have not improved for immigrants under the administration of Joe Biden, who effectively barred the right to asylum by invoking public health measures.

Non-italicized sections of this article are based on the statements of detained children, events personally witnessed by the author, and contemporary press reports. All quotations in non-italicized sections are exact. Italicized sections of the text contain fictionalized accounts of true events that were relayed to the author by the detained children. The detainees gave the author permission to publish their stories pseudonymously.

***

“We are not criminals, we are international workers!”

On Friday, October 12, 2018, a small group of people lingered outside the Gran Central Metropolitana bus station in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the most dangerous city in the world. They came from Nicaragua and Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala, they spoke Spanish, Mam, K’iche’ and Miskito, and they represented an international working class for which the nation state system is a straitjacket and a historical dead weight.

They were single young men and mothers with babies and they were older men who were laid off or fired or quit their jobs. Groups of friends who made the decision to travel together formed circles and laughed and shuffled their feet to make room for the shy and quiet travelers who were making the journey on their own.

They came from quiet, green villages illuminated by the light of the moon and they came from cities that buzz at night with the perilous sound of flickering fluorescent lights. A half millennia of colonial exploitation seeps deep into a society over many generations, but it was in living, recent memory that these peoples’ parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts were shot and tortured and violated by soldiers trained by the government of the country where they were to ask for refuge. Without thinking about this, the people who gathered at the Gran Central Metropolitana exchanged sheepish smiles and nods and understood one another.

Slums in Guatemala City, Guatemala (Wikimedia)

They were mostly young people, the first born in the new millennium, representatives of a working class whose very lives and relationships epitomize its international character. As they readied to leave, they texted their parents and aunts and uncles 2,000 miles away, in New York and Los Angeles and Houston and Washington D.C.: I’m leaving, it will be fine, don’t worry. They composed messages to boyfriends and girlfriends who were sitting alone in dark apartments, far away, whose faces were lit by the screen’s deep blue, tranquil glow. 

Through small particles of copper and lithium and tungsten mined from beneath Latin American earth, the people who gathered at the Gran Central Metropolitana were connected to the entirety of human existence like no generation before. They were connected to a world of people they would never meet, people who are awake, who are asleep, who are alone, who are in company, who are working, who are resting, to people in places where it is night, where it is day, where it is dusk and dawn, where it is autumn, where it is spring, to people who are on the bus, who are at school, to people who are eating, or laughing, or speaking, to people with all sorts of plans and ideas and goals.

The migrant caravan in Mexico, 2018 (Wikimedia)

In this world, people can speak to one another and send messages and mail packages and wire money and ship products from Kinshasa and Paris and Mumbai and Beijing and Dar es Salaam and London to every distant corner of the earth, but the people gathered at the Gran Central Metropolitana in San Pedro Sula put their phones in their pockets and began the 1,400 mile walk to the United States.

The people left San Pedro Sula through Colonia La Puerta and followed the brown Rio Chamelecon until they got into the countryside. When they got out of the city they realized there were more of them than they thought, maybe 500or 1,000. Along the way it seemed as though the people of the little pueblos were waiting for them. There were people running after them, kissing relatives goodbye, throwing backpacks over their shoulders. The group turned south, toward El Salvador. On October 14, when they arrived in Ocotepeque, near the Salvadoran and Guatemalan borders, the group had grown to 1,500 people.

On the night of Monday, October 15, the group crossed past police lines into Guatemala and arrived in Esquipulas. The next morning, Donald Trump tweeted that he had told Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, “If the large Caravan of people heading to the U.S. is not stopped and brought back to Honduras, no more money or aid will be given to Honduras, effective immediately!”

Hernández, the corrupt drug lord whose party was installed by the Obama administration in the 2009 coup of Manuel Zelaya, could do nothing. The group was already in Guatemala, where the people of the cities and the countryside came out of their shacks and small houses, saw the group, and they, too, thought, “Why not?” Soon the group became a moving mass of 7,000 people.

Trump solicited the help of the Mexican government, which made clear that Mexico, the 20th century bastion of asylum, would help Donald Trump enforce America’s borders on Mexican soil. Mexican police attacked the caravan as it crossed the border, killing 26-year-old Honduran Henry Adalid Díaz Reyes. But the movement of people persisted, overcame the Mexican police, and the people of Mexico in the towns of Chiapas came out of their homes and greeted the group, bringing them water, bringing them mole sauce, encouraging them on. 

On October 18, with the caravan still hundreds of miles away, Trump threatened to deploy the US military to close the US-Mexico border.

Calling the group of immigrants an “onslaught” and an “assault,” Trump demanded that Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico all use armed force to stop the immigrants, tweeting:

“In addition to stopping all payments to these countries, which seem to have almost no control over their population, I must, in the strongest of terms, ask Mexico to stop this onslaught – and if unable to do so I will call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!”

Trump visiting US-Mexico border in 2019 (Wikimedia)

This inspired the working people of Mexico to greet the crowds going north with a degree of enthusiasm that only further enraged the American president. The Mexicans hoped these hardworking people, would be allowed into the US. 

The US midterm elections were two weeks away. The administration was turning up the heat on the hot cauldron of American internal tensions. Earlier in 2018, Trump had enacted a Zero Tolerance policy deliberately separating immigrant children from their parents. The cameras flashed for a few weeks as the population watched in horror the images of children in tent cities. But the cameras soon shifted to other matters, and the Democrats largely dropped the issue. After all, Trump was not wrong when he said it was the Obama administration which first locked up thousands of children. Trump’s policy only made de jure what Obama had imposed de facto

In the weeks before the midterm election of November 6, the Trump administration was defending its family separation policy and advocating brutal new policies against immigrants, scapegoating them for crime and economic hardship. In an October 18 interview on 60 Minutes, Trump said, “When you allow the parents to stay together, OK, when you allow that, then what happens is people are going to pour into our country.”

Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, demanded that politicians “close catch-and-release loopholes in the law that would allow authorities to detain and remove family units safely and expeditiously. … However, the removal of actual family units, or those posing as family units, has been made virtually impossible by congressional inaction—which will most likely result in record numbers of families arriving illegally in the United States this year.”

The Democratic Party instructed its candidates to ignore or publicly support Trump’s attack on immigrants.

Speaking to a crowd in Austin, Texas, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told congressional candidates in the upcoming election not to focus on Trump’s attacks on immigrants, explaining that calling for “shutting down ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]” merely “serves the president’s purpose.” Pelosi said she tells Democratic candidates that focusing on the issue would “waste energy.”

At an event at Harvard University that same week, Pelosi proclaimed the Democratic Party’s desire to “find common ground” with Trump, explaining that Democrats “have to always try” to find ways to work with Trump. She said she thought Trump’s proposal to construct a border wall between the US and Mexico would be “expensive” and “ineffective” at stopping immigrants.

On October 22, 2018, the crowd was in Tapachula, Chiapas, in southern Mexico. That morning, the immigrants were being fed breakfast by the people of Chiapas.

On the same morning, I began an inspection of a child detention center.

DAY ONE

The building where the government contracts out the detention of immigrant children is in a nondescript office park between Lowes, Walmart and Target. It is in a section of town familiar to everyone regardless of whether they’ve ever been to Texas. The view of clusters of strip malls and the billboards of familiar corporations, the dull hum of the freeway in the background.

The building is white and cheaply made. Those who pass the building might mistake it for one of the many dentist’s offices visible from the freeway. Every day, thousands drive by the building without realizing it. Some living in the residential neighborhood a stone’s throw away might not know what is next door.

The front windows on the building are blacked out to prevent anyone from seeing in or from seeing out. The institution is characterized by the government as a “child care center” but in reality it is an internment camp. It is operated by a “non-profit” where management pockets six-figure salaries from funds distributed by the Department of Homeland Security.

Behind the façade of the suburban normal, there are dozens or hundreds of children who had been detained by Customs and Border Protection in the previous days, months, or in some cases, years. Such buildings exist in neighborhoods far beyond the southern border, in states like Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, and they existed before the Trump administration initiated the family separation policy in April 2018. But in the months that followed, thousands of children were taken from their parents by border police at the instruction of the president, put in cages, and then moved either to tent cities, repurposed army bases, or buildings like this.

I park in the employee parking lot and walk up to the main door over which staff have placed a sign reading “Welcome.” I buzz in and am given strict instructions as to what I may or may not do. I have four days, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., to speak to children. On the third day there will be a two-hour inspection during which the facility will be represented by an attorney from the Department of Justice. I must leave my cell phone in the car. If I am caught with a phone, I will be expelled.

The staff have expected the visit for months. They have all clearly been instructed to exude politeness. The young woman at the front desk smiles, talks slowly and loudly so I can better hear her politeness, and calls me “sir.” Decorations have been put up for Halloween, with words like “BOO” and “SCARY” posted in the hallways through which the children pass. The children explain to me that no decorations have been put up before, that this is an attempt to make the facility look child-friendly. The effect is eerie.

I am led to a cramped cubicle barely larger than a broom closet, with a window looking out on a hallway through which the staff and groups of children pass. In this small room I will conduct the interviews. I am given a piece of paper with a list of the names of the children presently detained. In four days it will only be possible to interview a tiny fraction of the hundreds of children detained here.

I select a child’s name at random and wait for him to be brought to me. Members of the staff passing by shoot me short, suspicious glances, which give the impression both that they have been warned about me and simultaneously that they are fearful of eye contact, because they know what they are doing.

Chano

The first child is brought to my office. His name is Chano, he is 15, he says, and he is from Guatemala. His brown eyes dart from the floor to the table and his hands fidget on the cold table between us. He does not trust me and is unwilling to speak.

I ask him what happened when he was arrested by immigration agents. His defensive silence ultimately breaks down and he begins to speak.

“I was taken to a detention center where I was kept initially,” he says. “It was so cold in there and all they gave us was this small aluminum blanket. When I was arrested the agents said they were going to release a dog to attack us.”

Young minors lie inside a pod at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in Donna, Texas, March 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, Pool)

The spirit of Guantánamo has trickled into every precinct house in America. At Guantánamo Bay prison the youngest inmate was 16.

Chano gets 10 minutes, twice a week, to call his mother. He told me what the phone calls were like.

***

A male staffer in a buzz cut walks Chano up to a room with a series of landline telephones. Dirty carpets, fluorescent light, blacked out windows.

You have 10minutes,” the staff member tells Chano after dialing the number.

Somewhere in Alabama a woman in her 30s, likely an agricultural or home service worker, hears her cell phone ring and darts over to the phone. Twice a week, she can speak to her son for 10 minutes. At the end of the calls she can hear her son begging the authorities for just a few more minutes, and the request is always denied. All she wants to do is hug her son; how much would she pay to hug him. Why did he have to get caught? Was she wrong to let him go alone? What else could she do? He had to get out. First it was the drought getting worse, but they thought it would pass. Then he got old enough for the mareros [gangs] to notice him, and that’s when he had to leave.

Bueno? Chano, hijo?”

Yes, hello mom,” Yoanis says. A few seconds of dead air, and then he starts to sob. “Mom, mom, you have to come get me.”

His mother in Alabama nods and closes her eyes. “Honey, there is a process. You know that.”

I know, but please, please just come and get me. It is so hard waiting, I can’t wait,” Chano says.

There is no way to know how long it will take for the government to process the fingerprints and release him into the custody of his mother, perhaps months. There was talk of a home inspection but it is not clear to Chano or his mother if or when that will happen.

The conversation goes on for another eight minutes in short, declarative phrases. It is not easy to be honest. Chano’s mother wishes she could tell her son how furious she is, how she filled out her paperwork promptly and acted with nothing but respect toward the social worker, that it was impossible to get a clear answer on anything. Instead, she reassured her son that it was all under control, that soon they would be together, that everything would be ok. And when 10 minutes had gone by, Chano’s mother put her phone in her back pocket and walked out the door to work. 

***

In the mornings at the facility, Chano and the other children are forced to pledge their allegiance to the United States. This is done in Spanish so they understand. Then, a classroom full of children who are citizens of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador will be told to declare, in broken English:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Chano says there are consequences for those who don’t say the pledge of allegiance:

“You get punished if you don’t. If you get reported, your release gets delayed. The staff routinely tell us that our case will get delayed for any reports we get.”

What reports, I ask.

Chano leans over the table and looks me in the eye and says, “They report everything, they observe everything. One wants to explode. I was punished for one whole month one time because I asked a staff member, ‘What happens if a child escapes?’ I was just asking out of curiosity, but they punished me anyway by putting me under observation for a month. I want to cry all the time.”

And you can be reported for not saying the pledge of allegiance? They delay your release?

“Yes,” he says.

The directors of the facility have set up an entire system of punishing inmates for various petty infractions. The children do not fully understand how it works, but they can be given “points” or they can be “reported,” and when such actions are taken, the child is given no formal means to explain or defend themselves before punishment is taken, a due process requirement in the public school system. And the penalty here is not mere suspension from class, it is the extension of their prison term, the forced prolongation of their separation from family. This is not merely the personal policy of errant guards, it is the policy of the entire facility.

***

What’s wrong with you, your stupid ass want to get us all in trouble?” says the 14-year-old once the boys are back in their room. They hung their towels up, climbed into their bunks.

Hey man, shut up,” shoots back the 16-year-old. There are 10in the bunkhouse, ages12 to 17. It’s a large age difference and makes for a complex social environment.

The 14-year-old has lived with his grandparents for his entire conscious life and has already been at the facility for four months, waiting to take the bus to some place called Michoagan where it is cold half the year. The 16-year-old, whose grandfather was tortured to death by the regime of President Efraín Ríos Montt [of Guatemala] and whose grandmother just died, arrived only two days ago en route to his father in Houston.

The 14-year-old boy says, “Just say the words, what difference does it make. You can be an idiot all you want when it only affects you, but this affects all of us. Don’t risk it for us. Just stop complaining already.”

The 16-year-old boy says, “I just spent four days in La Hielera [“the cooler”] with dogs barking in my face. I’m not saying that s— again. They took my cell phone.”

The 14-year-old responds, “You think you’re the only one who wants your cell phone? If you don’t say it they make a big deal out of it. What does it matter, just say it.” A couple of the other boys, from their bunks: “He’s right, man. Just go to sleep.”

The 16-year-old gets in bed with a furrowed brow. There is no door and the abrasive halogen from the ceiling light in the hallway shines through enough to notice even with your eyes closed. “Whatever. My dad will get me out of here,” he thinks to himself. “Stupid kid talking to me like that, just a campesino like me. What’s the use. I have to spend time with these guys, I don’t want them all to hate me. Just keep quiet and get it over with. It’s true, it won’t change anything. Plus, what do I care what that teacher thinks of me. Best to forget about it. Anyway, I caught sight of some of the girls today, they were looking at us too…”

At lunch, after the morning session, the 16-year-old sat by himself. Another boy from his bunk—older, been there longer, looked-up to by the others—sits by him. “Hey compa, put these chips in your shirt and tuck it in, it’ll look baggy with the sweatshirt and they can’t tell,” the boy said, slipping him his chips under the plastic table. Laughing with his mouth full of bread, the boy adds, “If they made our teacher eat what we eat, maybe she wouldn’t look like such a cow.”

***

July 2018: An escape attempt

Can a child decide to leave a child detention center? No, he or she cannot. Can a parent simply drive to the facility, ring the doorbell, walk under the “Welcome” sign and bring their child home? Also, no.

In July 2018, a 15-year-old girl fled an immigrant detention center in Homestead, Florida where she had been detained for three weeks. She was from Honduras. When she was roughly 4 years old, Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported a coup that brought to power elements of the military involved in the contra crimes of the 1980s.

Children in detention (AP photo)

The girl made her break as she was being escorted off-site to a doctor’s appointment. She simply began running, with no plan, and evidently tried to find a building where she believed other immigrants were likely to be. She chose an auto body shop that was, in fact, staffed by immigrant workers.

***

“She came running in from the streets,” Frank Gonzalez, the owner of the shop, told the Washington Post. “She was crying.”

The Post‘s report of July 28, 2018, reads: “The girl ran into [Mr. Gonzalez’s] shop and hid in a corner behind a large shelf full of tools. It was a busy morning at the large auto shop that operates 14 bays. But she stayed there, crying, for more than an hour on Friday morning, refusing to move.”

“We were giving her water and some food, but she stayed in that corner the whole time,” Elvis Lopez, a mechanic at the shop, told the Post. “She seemed pretty scared. She kept saying she didn’t want to go back.”

The facility from which the girl was trying to flee housed 1,200 immigrant children in a tent-city near an Air Force base.

Lopez called his sister, Bertha, who spoke to the girl and then to the Post: “She was very afraid. She said she was from Honduras, and she has no family. I told her she would be safe, and we would try to help her.”

The Post wrote, “Bertha Lopez called Nora Sandigo, head of a local nonprofit organization that helps immigrant families navigate the legal system. Lopez told the girl that they would get her a lawyer if she needed one. But the girl was inconsolable. … ‘She didn’t feel confident that anybody could help,’ Lopez said. Before Sandigo could get there, police vans began circling the shop’s parking lot” and officers found the girl.

Bertha Lopez told the Post she was still on the phone with her brother when the police arrived to arrest the girl. “I could hear her screaming and crying and begging not to go back,” she said.

***

“There are other rules that don’t make sense,” Chano says. “One time I didn’t stop playing fast enough after they told us to stop, and I was punished for three days which meant I couldn’t go to church or play. It was awful. And you cannot talk to girls unless they are several feet away. We can get in trouble just for lining up wrong. Every moment we are being vigilantly followed. The staff forbids us from eating chips, but they bring bags of chips and eat them in front of us. If we’re caught eating them they would report us, and some staff sneak some chips for us, but we cannot get caught eating them. The children here joke about the fact that everything merits a report here, and that soon we’ll get reports for breathing.

“The staff caught us talking among ourselves about Dreamers one day…”

***

Hey,” the 13-year-old boy with a gap in his teeth said loudly to his 14-year-old brother in the lunch room. “My mom told me when we get out we can be dreamers. Have you heard about that?”

No, man, just keep quiet,” his 14-year-old brother responded, embarrassed.

Yeah man, I heard about dreamers, that’s what they’re called,” said a larger 13-year-old whose brother already lived in Los Angeles and who had told him a lot about how things worked in America. “Dreamers get to stay in the US because they are kids. So none of us will get deported, that’s what they say.”

Wow!” said the 13-year-old, his face lit up with excitement. “I can’t believe nobody told us!”

A third boy with a small frame and a bowl cut sounded startled: “You mean we could get deported in here?” His shoulders started to shake and he scrunched his face to hold back tears. He took a deep breath.

Calm down, man,” said another boy. “Worst case scenario you get deported you get to try again.”

This did not console the smaller boy, whose body continued to shake. “Wh-what do you mean ‘try again.’ If you get deported you can’t do anything, that’s it.”

One of the other boys pointed his finger and started to laugh. “He thinks getting deported means you die! Look at this kid! Can you believe it! How stupid can you be!”

The other boys started to chuckle and caused a small commotion. A 17-year-old sitting next to the smaller boy who had been silent the whole discussion stood up from his seat: “Because his cousin was killed the day he was deported to San Pedro Sula.”

The laughter stopped and their 15 minutes for lunch were up. The next group was already lined up, they had to throw out what was left on their plates, which was usually nothing.

Later that night the long-haired staffer came in to turn out the lights in the bunk room. This staffer is the nicer one, his name is Logan. He is white and he tries to speak a little Spanish with the inmates in his block. Sometimes he brings them chips at night, when they’re hungry, and tells them to be cool about it. Tonight he comes into the room with a translator, and before turning the lights off for the night, he says: “Hey guys, a few people saw what went down today in the lunch room. If you guys keep talking about the DREAM Act, they are going to write you up. You know what that means, so just be cool and don’t do it, and it’ll just be easier. There’s no point in talking about politics, none of that stuff matters anyway.”

***

I asked Chano if he had heard of the caravan. No, he had not. What caravan? There are thousands of working people from Central America marching through Mexico right now, and they are being cheered and applauded by crowds of working people as they head north. They are going to get to a fork in the route, and they’ll either go to California or Texas. If they turn right they’ll be marching right this way. They are demanding the right to enter the US in defiance of Trump’s threats to use violence against them.

No, he had not heard that, but he thought it was pretty cool. As far as he knew, nobody at the facility had heard about that. Something like that would get around, he said. He would have heard about it.

***

The dead: Felipe Alonzo-Gómez

Some of the children do not make it to detention centers. 

Minutes before midnight on Christmas Eve 2018, in a rural New Mexico hospital 2,000 miles from his home in Guatemala, an 8-year-old boy named Felipe Alonzo-Gómez died in US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody.

Though the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a statement calling the death an “unfortunate incident,” the boy’s death was the product of calculated state cruelty inflicted each day on the tens of thousands of immigrants caught crossing the US-Mexico border.

Six days earlier, on December 18, Felipe’s long journey north came to an end when he and his father were captured in the desert west of El Paso, Texas. They were taken to the Paso Del Norte processing center, where they were placed in what is known as La Hielera—the ice box—a warehouse dungeon where temperatures are deliberately kept near freezing and prisoners are kept in cages under glaring halogen lights. Spoiled food, abusive guards and excrement-covered walls are commonplace.

According to CBP, Felipe was kept in the Paso Del Norte processing center for a day and a half and was then transferred to another dungeon, the El Paso Border Patrol Station. On December 22, the El Paso station was crammed full of immigrants—many of whom were likely sick from La Hielera, the journey north and the cold December desert temperatures—and so Felipe and his father were driven 80 miles north to the Alamogordo Border Patrol Station.

After six days of this, Felipe was coughing and looked seriously ill. It is unclear from official CBP reports when the boy developed his illness, but it wasn’t until the morning of his death that he received any medical attention.

Felipe was driven to the Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center. Three hours later he was misdiagnosed as suffering from a common cold. In mid-afternoon, despite having a 103-degree fever, he was released from the hospital, given ibuprofen and amoxicillin, and driven to another holding jail on the side of the interstate highway.

That evening, Felipe began to vomit uncontrollably. There were no medical staff present at the holding jail, and as Felipe’s condition worsened, he was transferred back to the hospital, where he lost consciousness and died.

Felipe is the second Guatemalan child to die in CBP custody in a several-week span. The body of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, who died in El Paso on December 8, was buried on Christmas day in her impoverished mountainous hometown of San Antonio Secortez. Her 27-year-old mother, who is Q’eqchi Mayan, was too distraught to attend.

Felipe was from the municipality of Nentón, in the department Huehuetenango, located near the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Nentón’s poverty, which Felipe and his father sought to escape, is the product of American exploitation and imperialist plunder.

Huehuetenango forms the westernmost part of what is now known as the Franja Transversal del Norte (Northern Transversal Strip), a resource-rich area in the center of the country containing the country’s wood, oil and mineral deposits. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, poor peasants in the region engaged in some of the fiercest efforts to seize farmland from the control of wealthy landowners and corporations such as the United Fruit Company.

After a US-backed coup overthrew President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, the strip, including Huehuetenango, was opened up to unprecedented levels of exploitation by American corporations. Thousands of peasants were killed to break the land movement. In the late 1970s and 1980s, when the civil war reached its most violent stage, many of the worst atrocities committed by the Guatemalan government and its CIA-backed death squads took place in Huehuetenango.

Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, deposed by US-backed coup in 1954 (Wikimedia)

One of the worst took place in Felipe’s home municipality. In 1999, researchers uncovered a mass grave at the San Francisco finca (land estate) in the municipality of Nentón, revealing a horrific government attack on the village as retribution for peasant land seizures. A New York Times report from 1999 describes what happened:

On the morning of July 17, 1982, a convoy of army trucks made its way up a nearly impassable trail to this remote Mayan Indian hamlet and unloaded a company of troops. Soon afterward a helicopter arrived with the unit’s officers.

The US-trained soldiers rounded up the villagers with the promise of a feast. 

What happened next was an act of butchery that left all but four of the village’s inhabitants dead and all the buildings razed. According to contemporary accounts by people who lived in neighboring communities, many of the women were ordered to disrobe and raped. Children were torn from mothers’ arms and eviscerated with knives or beheaded with machetes. The rampaging troops killed all they found—shooting villagers, blowing up others with grenades, hacking some to death, burning some or crushing them under the walls of falling buildings.

According to public records, it appears that Felipe Alonzo-Gómez’s relatives may have been among the tortured and killed. Though this is difficult to verify, a list of the victims of the massacre shows that 24 members of the Gómez family and three members of the Alonzo family were killed. If Felipe’s father lived in or near Nentón at the time, he would have been roughly 11 years old.

Ruins of a building in El Mozote, El Salvador, scene of the El Mozote Massacre (Wikimedia)

Yency

Yency’s 13th birthday took place in detention, she said.

She was escorted into my office crying. She couldn’t have weighed more than 80 pounds. She was quiet, but not in the way that young campesino children are quiet and shy because they are conscious even at a very early age of their lack of education. Yency was from the city, from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Her eyes were quick and she was not embarrassed to be brought into the same room as a strange man with a tie and jacket. She speaks with purpose, thrusting her index finger onto the table to convey points and opening her eyes wide for emphasis.

Yency made the trip north with a cousin, and they were both arrested in the desert in the heat of July. From the quiet black nights of the desert Yency was thrown under the blinding floodlights of La Hielera, where she lost track of time.

“I was apprehended with my cousin around July 2018,” she said. “When immigration apprehended us, they brought us to ‘La Hielera’—the cooler. The agents were extremely strict, they would not let us sleep during the day. There was too much light all the time and it was really cold. I only was allowed to wash once a day. The bathrooms were very dirty and you could see everything, including the excrement, which was everywhere in the bathroom. We had to sleep on the floor using aluminum blankets which are very uncomfortable. I was in La Hielera for one night and then I was in ‘La Perrera’—the doghouse—for two days. I couldn’t tell if it was day or night because the lights are kept on all the time.”

Immigrant children at a detention center in McAllen Texas, June 2019 (Office of the Inspector General)

Yency’s father lives in Austin, Texas, but he has not been allowed to pick her up and take her home. “He already sent his fingerprints to the government but they have not responded and it has been a month since he sent them,” she says. She speaks with her father and has seen recent photos of him, but he left to work in the United States when she was a child and she hasn’t seen him in years. “We are always in communication, though I have never met him,” she says.

There is nothing in her tone or speech which implies a lack of faith in her father’s ability to secure her release: “I don’t know when I will be able to be free from here. The social worker here has not told me anything about when I can expect to be released and the process with my dad trying to free me has taken so long.” She has been at the facility for three months.

***

Did you talk to the social worker?” He asks.

Yes dad. I keep asking why it is taking so long. They say that’s just how it works,” she replies. She has to use a stool to reach the telephone.

You know I am doing everything I can,” he says.

Don’t worry, I know. Don’t worry.”

Are you feeling better? Are you eating?” He asks.

Yes. Can we get McDonalds when you pick me up?”

Yes, of course,” he says, laughing. “I have to go to work now, I’m sorry. I love you, the first thing we do when I come get you is we will go to McDonalds.”

In 12 years of living in America he has rented an apartment with three other men. Now he will have to get his own place, with his daughter. It will mean getting another job. Every pay day he goes to Western Union and sends what he can to his wife and daughter. At first it was just going to be for a couple of years. When his father died he didn’t go back. He paid for the funeral, but that was it. To try to cross again isn’t as easy as it used to be. Everyone understood. They thanked him for paying.

At first they would talk about how he might come home, but those type of conversations got further and further apart and then they stopped happening at all. Now his daughter is a day’s drive away and he can’t bring her home. Did he do something wrong? He filled out the paperwork like the lady said. He sent in his fingerprints. He heard you could be deported if you gave your information. He hoped he wouldn’t be deported, but what could he do? Now he was waiting to be allowed to pick up his daughter, his 13-year-old daughter who was an infant when he last saw her. He would go from effectively single to the father of a teenage girl. He had missed her life, he had spent the last years working, and for what. In the end his daughter ends up hospitalized for suicide and there is nothing he can do about it.

***

Yency was losing weight.

“In both La Hielera and La Perrera the food was stale, bad, horrible. They give you hard bread, food you can’t eat. The ham was spoiled. They gave us water, an apple, and chips for three days and nothing else. I was so physically weak and I was losing a lot of weight. When I got here, the doctor didn’t help me at all with my weight loss. I told them I needed to be put on a weight gain diet but they ignored me.”

“They give us milk with every meal here, even with soup,” Yency says. “They give us oatmeal without sugar and it’s inedible. They make a report and delay our release if we do not eat the food. They give us some flour tortillas that are horrible, they taste weird and I believe they are stale.”

When she realized what it would be like at the facility, she grew despondent. Days went by and there was no clear sign she would be reunited with her father. The social worker said there was nothing that could be done, that if she behaves and eats and does what she is supposed to, she will get out sooner. Her anxiety grew worse. She kept thinking about the bright lights in La Hielera. Why the bright lights?

“Being alone like this is really sad,” she tells me. “It gives me really awful anxiety. I was having very bad thoughts and I told my counselor. I was crying all the time and included thinking about killing myself. So they sent me to a psychologist who said I needed to go to the hospital. This was in July and I was there for six days.

“The supervisor here told me I would have my privileges taken away for going to the hospital. I couldn’t go to the movies or anything and I couldn’t go outside past the patio. It is not fair. They gave me four types of medication for my anxiety, to help me sleep, and also vitamin D. But I still have anxiety because even when I sleep, someone is always checking on us and is right on the other side of the door, and shining the flashlight on our faces.”

***

The nurse is driving home from her shift, home to see her kids. They were getting to an age, testing her authority. Her husband knew when not to ask her about work.

She pictured the girl in bed 310. They blocked the room, on the orders of the officials who brought her there, so there would be no second patient in the room with her. That was odd, she thought. The other nurses who had been there longer said this happens from time to time. They bring girls over, sometimes with cuts in their arms. But this time the poor girl wouldn’t eat. She was losing weight, and she had none to spare. She was weak and her mind was hazy. They should have brought her in sooner.

The nurse didn’t speak Spanish but she could see the look in the girl’s eyes. She was an intelligent girl, that she could tell by the look in her eyes. Her own daughter has bright, alert eyes, too. The girls are about the same age.

They hooked the girl up to an IV and she started to grow more alert. Two of her Latino co-workers took an interest and came in and spoke to her in Spanish. On the third day one of the nurses brought fast food from the food court and told her not to say anything. “Poor girl,” the nurses would say to each other in the break room, shaking their heads. They are nurses and used to watching tragedies, but this one impacted the morale of the entire shift. This girl was a prisoner. She was always watched. There was someone there with her, someone who smiled falsely at us when we came in to change her sheets and empty her bedpan.

On the drive home, election signs everywhere. In one week, the midterms. How many people know about this, the nurse thought to herself. She put her foot on the gas to get home to her family just a little faster.

***

Yency is bored.

“Everything is so boring here it is hard to handle,” she says. “We have to get up at 6 a.m. when they turn the lights on. On Saturday and Sunday they wake us up at 7 in the morning. Then we have school, and they don’t give us textbooks or homework. It would be great if they gave us homework. School is so boring because we are never challenged. We came here to the US to make a future but we can’t with school like this. I heard that classes in American schools are fun and I have friends who say they loved school in America, but in here they give us no fun exercises, no learning games. Everything is always, always, always the same.”

“After school we go to our room and listen to music. Only sometimes do they let us pick the music. All we can do is talk and it gets so boring. They only have about five types of games. Then we go to our rooms at night but we can’t read or do anything because we don’t have lamps. I would love if we had lamps to be able to read. We also do not have any books in Spanish, all the books are in English.

“There are a lot of rules that are very hard to follow and you get punished if you break them, even accidentally. We can’t wear our hair the way we want. They report me and get me in trouble if I wear my hair in certain ways. We can’t even have our hair down—it is not allowed. They don’t give us razors to shave which is difficult for women, we need it for our hygiene.

“They don’t even give us shampoo. We have to use liquid hand soap on our hair and because of that everyone has dandruff. We have to clean our own rooms and they do not let us even have pictures of our families in our rooms.”

***

Embarrassed by their surroundings, self-conscious about their isolation, each carrying the weight of their immense trauma, the girls fight with each other and pick on the younger girls, the skinny girls, the overweight girls, the most vulnerable.

Yency tells me, “the older girls say I’m worth nothing and say that nobody wants me. Another older girl teases me because I take medications to sleep. She was saying, ‘There goes the baby going to sleep.’ The other girls join in, and they all said nobody loves me. I feel extremely isolated and lonely, and these comments make me feel even worse.

“One of the girls started saying a lot of things to me the other day and I reacted badly. I did not hit her, I just grabbed her by the arms and told her not to speak to me like that. The staff punished me instead, sending me to speak to a Chief Leader and he said in another situation he would’ve reported me to the police and would get me arrested. I am very worried about the report he made about me, and about whether it could delay my release.”

I stop her. She repeats that the staff member threatened to call police to arrest her because of this incident. I explained that would be illegal, and Yency shrugs. Chief Leader is Hauptführer in German.

I ask Yency why she thinks the girls are so mean to her. She is small, she cries a lot, it annoys the girls, she says. But they’re going through a lot too, Yency explains. She is not the only one who cries, she catches the mean girls crying, too.

*** 

She cries in bed and keeps the other girls up. A guard comes in and flashes a light on her face, and she sobs until she eventually falls asleep. And when they tell her that nobody wants her, she sometimes wonders whether it is true. Her mother sent her north by herself and her father can’t come and get her. She knows there are reasons. She knows her father is trying, she trusts him when he says so. It’s her fault, really. If she didn’t grab the girl’s arm, she wouldn’t have been reported. Now her release will be delayed, the staff told her. If she does it again she might go to jail. She has one friend who is on staff who tells her not to listen to the other girls, who tries to console her, who tells her not to worry.

***

Yency tells me she has asked the staff if she can use her 10 minute phone time to call both her mom and her dad for five minutes each. “They said no,” she explains.

“What scares me too is that for the last two weeks the phone calls are not working to my mom in Honduras. Nobody answers at home. Sometimes it seems that the phone has been hacked because there are voices on the other line who say bad things and I don’t know who they are.”

***

Yency describes some of the activities in the facility.

“One time during Zumba activity I talked back to staff when I got reprimanded for talking to someone,” she says. “The staff yelled at me and told me to shut up.”

Sometimes they are allowed to play movies on the weekend. “The staff always wants to play movies in English, and none of us can understand.”

On very rare occasions, a group of children are rewarded for good behavior with a trip to a nearby movie theater.

“In the three months I have been here I’ve been to the movies once. They don’t buy us any snacks when we are there. At the movies there is so much security from the staff. There are staff at the end of each row and in the middle and also in front and behind us. Sometimes other girls say the movies are in English and nobody can understand. They won’t let you talk to anybody at the theater, either. One time a woman was trying to be nice to me and she asked me ‘how are you?’ But the staff called me and said I couldn’t reply.”

***

Her town was in the news again. She had heard about the facilities, in passing, sometimes a short local news story, an article in the paper, but for a few weeks it was everywhere. Her cousin’s friend worked at the facility for a few weeks, they needed Spanish speakers and paid $14.50 an hour. They quit and got a job at Walmart for $11.

Nobody really talked about it. Apparently the children were well taken care of, it was sad, their parents didn’t want them. It’s not the kids’ fault, but the parent should know better. They shouldn’t put their own kids in danger like that. Another cousin who works for the police department said it was mostly 17-year-old boys who are really adults, gang members. It was sad, but some of them were gang members. Most of them, probably. You should hear about their tattoos. They aren’t really meeting parents in the US, they will get picked up by other gang members.

That’s what some people said. She wasn’t sure what to believe. She knew the national media was here again, she saw the reports on TV, and they showed photos of children in cages. She heard those pictures were from a few years back, that the photos were from Obama. Or maybe those were different photos. She wasn’t sure if the photos were recent, but in any case, there were reports that thousands of children had been taken from their parents and that was something different. She couldn’t believe that was happening. She always took the news with a grain of salt. You can never be sure what they are really up to, she thought to herself. The news probably exaggerates it to sell commercial time. It’s all about the money.

And one day she took her 5-year-old niece to see a children’s movie, and she was fretting over her little niece, who was spilling popcorn everywhere when two men walked into the theater with a group of 20 children in a single file line. They shuffled slowly by and walked up the felt stairs to the back of the theater and sat in the back row. Two women followed and the adults sat at the aisles on either side. Every now and then there was a stern voice that said “no talking” in English.

The lights dimmed and the trailers began, loudly, drowning out the sounds of the children behind her, their bodies bustling with energy, shifting in their seats, tapping their feet, looking around. The woman tried to put it out of her mind and she watched as the animated movie began. Halfway through the movie, her niece tugged on her arm and said she needed to go to the bathroom. The woman took her niece to the bathroom and they were washing their hands when the door opened and another woman walked in, holding the arm of a girl, skinny as a bone, who looked at her with big wide eyes. The niece looked at the girl and said “hello.” The girl smiled shyly, like she was familiar with little girls, like she herself was prideful to be an older sister. 

Hello there,” said the aunt, trying to smile. She looked at the girl and could see that there was something missing in her eyes. This was a child who did not have an easy life. The girl began to speak, and the woman holding her by the arm said “Shhh!” before whisking her into an unoccupied bathroom stall. It was then that the aunt realized it was worse than they said. She took her niece, got in the car and drove home.

***

A TV news crew came to the facility once, Yency says.

“One time there was a reporter outside with a camera. I was outside playing in the fenced-in area and they told us all immediately to get in line and go inside in total silence without speaking.”

***

July 2019: “They came to the wrong community on the wrong day”

“For two weeks, people kept spotting the mysterious truck,” the Washington Post wrote on July 23, 2019. “An unmarked white Ford F-150, it circled the streets of Hermitage, a Nashville neighborhood where trampolines and plastic slides sit outside unpretentious ranch houses on the outskirts of the city. Several residents told The Tennessean that they didn’t think much of it—until early Monday, when the truck turned on its flashing red and blue lights to stop their neighbor as he left his house with his 12-year-old son.”

“Inside were two agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who had been lying in wait as the sun rose. They had an administrative order granting them permission to detain the father, who had reportedly lived in the community for 14 years. But things didn’t go as planned. Hours later, the agents left empty-handed, after neighbors worked together to block the man’s arrest.”

Black and white residents appealed to friends and neighbors to come to the home to prevent the arrest. ICE agents attempted to dupe the immigrants out of the van, through threats and even offers of cash. More and more neighbors arrived at the scene and the protest grew. Neighbors brought the immigrants sandwiches and gasoline so they could keep the air conditioner running on what was a hot day. At times the neighbors linked arms and formed a human chain around the van. The ICE agents were eventually forced to flee the scene.

The Post wrote, “When a reporter from the Nashville Scene arrived, one neighbor could be heard observing, ‘They came to the wrong community on the wrong day.’ The man whom ICE was trying to arrest has not been publicly identified, but a neighbor, Angela Glass, described him and his family as ‘good people.’ When flashing lights lit up their quiet subdivision at around 6 a.m. Monday, residents wondered what was going on. Glass told Nashville Public Radio she had lived near the family for five years but never realized that the father wasn’t a citizen.”

Glass said: “Everybody got mad and was like, ‘They don’t do nothing, they don’t bother nobody, you haven’t got no complaints from them. Police have never been called over there. All they do is work and take care of their family and take care of the community.’”

Felishadae Young told a local television station, “We stuck together like neighbors are supposed to do. We made sure they had water, they had food, we put gas back in the vehicle when they were getting low just to make sure they were ok…[ICE] was very mean to them, they talked to them like they were nothing.”

The Post wrote that “ICE officers tried to cajole the pair into stepping out of the van. They dangled the possibility of cash rewards, telling the boy and his father that they would have to get out eventually.” ICE had no warrant and had no legal authority to make the arrest.

“Finally, after about four hours, the agents gave up and left. Clasping hands, the diverse group of activists, neighbors, and concerned community members surrounded the van. They formed a human chain, lining the pathway that led to the family’s modest brick home. The van’s doors flung open, and the father and son raced inside the house. Cheers erupted from the crowd as the front door slammed behind them.”

***

The dead: Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez, Juan de León Gutiérrez, Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin

When an unnamed girl from El Salvador died in September 2018, US officials failed to notify the public of her death, leaving even the Salvadoran consulate in the dark. News of her death became public only eight months later. She was 10 years old.

A US government official has now confirmed that the girl entered the US in March 2018 in a “medically fragile state” but was not transferred to a health facility until May. After four months, she went into a coma on September 26. Only then was she transferred to Nebraska where her family lived. She died on September 29 of “fever and respiratory distress,” the official said.

When CBS asked for comment, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) complained about the financial cost of mandatory medical screenings for children.

The Salvadoran girl was the first of six immigrant children who died in US custody between autumn 2017 and 2018. Over the course of the prior decade, no child died in immigrant detention.

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