Shared from the 6/26/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

EDITORIAL

Frightened babies

Immigrant kids need humane treatment and shouldn’t be used as political pawns.

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Cedar Attanasio /Associated Press

The Border Patrol station in Clint was exposed for poor conditions of kids.

The children had matted hair, clothes caked with grime, eyes heavy with trauma. They were hungry, scared, alone without comfort under the constant glare of overhead lights.

Child after child wheezed and coughed, their raspy breathing signaling the need for urgent medical care. One young boy was so deprived of sleep that he couldn’t keep his eyelids open and dozed off, sprawled across two conference room chairs.

Others as young as 8 cared for infants and toddlers smeared in snot and reeking of urine. Many had not bathed for weeks. They had no toothbrushes. No toothpaste. No soap.

They were “just frightened babies,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch, who described the children she saw last week during a visit to a Customs and Border Protection facility in Clint, Texas.

Dr. Dolly Lucio Sevier, a Brownsville pediatrician, found much the same thing while visiting the Ursula Border Processing Center in McAllen. CBP officials have disputed the claims but acknowledge limited resources.

If we witnessed this kind of mistreatment of a child, most of us would feel compelled to report it. A teacher or doctor would be bound by law to do so.

And yet, someone has determined that the children warehoused in Clint are not deserving of such protections. Because they weren’t born on American soil, because they come here seeking asylum, our government has deemed them unworthy of compassion.

And this, for any conscientious American, is worthy of our horror, our shame and our outrage.

If we are tolerant of the federal government, acting in our names, treating migrant children on the border as something less than human — then we have all lost some of our own humanity.

No matter where we stand on the issue of immigration, no matter what our stance on asylum laws or border security, surely we can all agree that innocent children deserve better. One journalist who was held hostage by the Taliban for eight months noted that even his brutal captors provided toothpaste and soap.

Confining babies, toddlers and 10-year-olds in conditions worse than prisoners of war (see the Geneva Convention ) is intolerable. And it is un-American.

It is not, apparently, un-Trumpian. After all, this is a crisis of the Trump administration’s own making — manufactured by a White House determined to paint immigrants and asylum-seekers as criminals and drains on society. One that ripped thousands of children away from their parents under a zero tolerance policy designed to deter border crossings by inflicting pain — a practice that we were told ended last year but, as the Houston Chronicle’s Lomi Kriel reported, continues today.

In federal court last week a government attorney argued that toothpaste and soap are not required to create “safe and sanitary” conditions for children in immigration custody.

“It’s within everybody’s common understanding that if you don’t have a toothbrush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, it’s not safe and sanitary,” said Senior U.S. Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima, who during World War II was held in a U.S. internment camp for Japanese Americans. “Wouldn’t everybody agree to that? Do you agree to that?”

We do. So does the law. Under the 1997 Flores agreement, migrant children must be housed in “safe and sanitary” conditions. What the lawyers, doctors and advocates heard through limited interviews with children was appalling, said Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School.

About 350 children — 5 months to 17 years old — were crammed into the Clint facility, far exceeding capacity. Most had been detained for weeks, even though the legal limit is 72 hours.

Seven children have already died in immigration custody since last year. Elected officials from Washington to Texas need to stand up against the continuing abuses that defy America’s commitment to human rights.

After reports of the conditions at Clint emerged, and an outcry spread across social media, most of the children were relocated — only for about 100 to be returned hours later to the same facility. On Tuesday afternoon, the acting CPB commissioner, John Sanders, announced his resignation.

It won’t solve the problem.

Mukherjee and the other lawyers are rightfully calling for congressional hearings, as well as basic necessities for children — and adults — in immigration custody.

More can — and should — be done. Congress should pass a border bill that includes $4.5 billion in emergency humanitarian aid dedicated to providing better standards in detention facilities. Instead of sending up to 1,000 National Guard troops to the border, Gov. Greg Abbott should send lawyers, social workers and doctors.

Most of all, the children — many of whom wore bracelets with the names of relatives in the U.S. — should be released promptly to family members.

America is adivided nation, but we should agree that children seeking shelter at our border are worthy of humane treatment — even if their parents lack necessary documents, even if they entered outside an official checkpoint. They’re kids, not prisoners of political war.

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