Turn on the Lights for America’s Undocumented Children

When clergy are denied access to children housed in Border Patrol detention centers, it raises a question: Are the conditions even worse than we feared?

I was on a delegation of faith and community leaders organized by Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-3) to tour the Border Patrol facility and detention center in Nogales, Arizona, where unaccompanied minors who are fleeing poverty and violence in Central America are housed. Though arrangements had been made through the congressman’s office with the appropriate authorities, the religious leaders, myself included, were denied access to the facility. Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief Manuel Padilla Jr. told us that they would allow only congressional staff to enter. Congressman Grijalva refused to enter without us, explaining, “We need transparency here. We need to know the extent to which officials are properly using the resources available within the community. Trust in this process is essential, and forbidding community leaders who work with the immigrant community and understand the needs of these children will raise skepticism about the process.”

The lack of transparency and oversight of the Border Patrol is nothing new. In the past several years there have been so many accusations of abuse that the humanitarian group No More Deaths has described it as a “culture of cruelty.” The report, fully titled “A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short Term Border Patrol Custody,” offers a glimpse into the inhumane conditions and the kinds of abuses that have been documented:

[I]ndividuals suffering severe dehydration are deprived of water; people with life-threatening medical conditions are denied treatment; children and adults are beaten during apprehensions and in custody; family members are separated, their belongings confiscated and not returned; many are crammed into cells and subjected to extreme temperatures, deprived of sleep, and threatened with death by Border Patrol agents.

Add to that the shooting deaths of 20 mostly young men since 2010, which have largely gone uninvestigated, and it becomes clear that no matter how “good” the conditions these detainees are living in, the people who are in charge of them feel no onus to provide the care and love that these children so desperately need.

As a person of faith who reads the words of Christ — “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5) — I believe that we are called to care for all children as if they were our own. We are called to make sure they are treated with the dignity and respect that they are imbued with by their Creator, and we are called to make sure that they have access to food and water, proper sanitation, health care, counselors, and pastors.

The children who have arrived at our border are fleeing extreme violence and debilitating poverty. They have survived a harrowing journey and been subjected to untold abuse, and now they arrive only to be held in conditions unsuitable, not just for children, but for anyone. Faith leaders across the nation are calling for human rights monitoring to ensure the safety and protection of these children, for the children to be reunited with their families in the U.S. immediately, and for our government to act with purpose and humanitarian resolve.

The conditions in which these children are being held breaks my heart not only as an American, and not only as a pastor, but as a mother as well. Tonight as I was putting my two-year-old to bed, she started to cry because it was “too dark” — even though the dimmer switch was almost all the way up. This is a new thing for her — to complain that it is too dark — and it’s getting a bit wearisome. But tonight, my thoughts immediately went to the children in Nogales housed in a large warehouse by Border Patrol agents, and I wondered if it was too dark for them at night or whether the lights remained on at all times keeping them from a restful night sleep.

As I thought about them, afraid in the night, wishing for their mothers to come in and make it alright, I quickly left my daughter’s room in tears — but not before I turned her lights all the way up. These are the little details a mother thinks of when she knows that 60 miles from the safety of her own home, nearly 1,100 children are being warehoused in conditions so questionable that clergy are denied access to see them.

The average age of the children being housed in Nogales is said to be 15-17 years old — around the same age as 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, who was killed by a Border Patrol agent who shot across the border into Mexico, shooting him 11 times, and seven times in the back. These Border Patrol agents are the same people we are trusting to care for our children? These children are living in the dark of an agency with a history of abuse and impunity, and it’s time for someone to turn on the lights.

Image via Shutterstock.