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‘Children Were Dirty, They Were Scared, and They Were Hungry’

The previous week my colleagues from the Flores team were in Ursula [a detention center in McAllen, Texas] interviewing children, and the lawyers and doctor on that team identified multiple infants who were extremely sick and who needed to be hospitalized. Those infants were admitted to the hospital, and some to the intensive-care unit.

It’s worth noting that over the last year, seven children have died in federal immigration custody. When you look at the data for nearly the previous decade, there was not a single death. There was not a single reported death of a child in federal immigration custody.

O’Leary: You’ve been doing this work for a while, and I know that you’ve been asked this question before, but how do these conditions compare to what you saw under previous administrations?

Mukherjee: I have never seen such degrading treatment of children.

I’m a mother myself. I have children who are 3, 6, and 9. I met with children my own kids’ age at the detention center who had no sibling or parent to take care of them. The guards are bringing in children who are 2 years old, 3 years old, and asking children who are just slightly older to take care of them. Actually, they’re not asking; they’re ordering that 7-, 8-, or 9-year-old children take care of 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds.

Obviously, these young children do not know how to take care of toddlers. When an 8-year-old was being interviewed about a 2-year-old whom she was unrelated to and had very little information about, one of the questions that my colleague Warren Binford asked is, “Does this toddler need a diaper?” The 8-year-old responded, “No.” Almost immediately the 2-year-old wet their pants.

O’Leary: You describe talking to kids the same age as your children. What is their comprehension of where they are and what’s happening to them?

Mukherjee: The children are terrified. Many of the children I spoke with have not been permitted to make a single phone call to any of their family members or loved ones since crossing the border. Many of them are being held incommunicado. Everyone who we interviewed, and I anticipate nearly every child who was detained at Clint, has family members in the United States who are desperate to be reunited with their beloved children. Parents who are desperate to get their children back and parents who have no idea how to get their children out of there and the children have no comprehension, no understanding of how they might be able to get out. They don’t understand the process to get out.

O’Leary: What should the process be? Shouldn’t they be under the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at this point?

Mukherjee: Yes. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act requires that children be transferred out of CBP custody within 72 hours. The children are then transferred to ORR custody.

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