[The following op-ed appeared in USA Today on July 29th. To view it on USA Today’s page, click here.]
Aid organizations can help, but the federal government must give us permission now.
Rooms with concrete floors and walls, packed with children. The overpowering smell of sweat and urine. Guards who have to wear masks to deal with the stench. Toilets with little or no privacy. No showers or beds in sight.
What I saw on a recent visit to a detention centeralong our border was children, many just five or six years old, essentially imprisoned. Vulnerable children separated from parents, susceptible to bullying and sickness, and held like criminals. They were exhausted, lonely, and dazed. I have been in many refugee camps throughout my career in global development, and this center rivals each of them. But this one is right here in the United States.
Despite the rhetoric around immigration and the heated policy debate here in Washington, these are not criminals. They are innocent children caught up in a situation beyond their control. Regardless of why and how they came, they are here now — and they deserve to be treated with humanity.
In the face of an influx of unaccompanied minors, Customs and Border Patrol and other agencies are understandably overwhelmed. Customs and Border Patrol is responsible for protecting our borders from those who are a threat to our national security, and not trained to care for large numbers of children in crisis. They maintain the basic safety of the detention center, but are unable to meet children’s emotional and physical needs to ensure their well-being.
Humanitarian organizations like ours that have worked in conflict and crisis settings around the world are well-placed to provide our psychosocial programs directly to children, as we have offered to do. But first, we need permission to be in these centers. Until now, despite the well-intentioned efforts of individuals, collective bureaucracy and inertia have stymied our efforts. Weeks of requests have goneunheeded; we are still unable to implement much-needed programming inside of these centers.
In addition to our existing work in nearby shelters and with FEMA Corps volunteers, we stand ready to address both the physical and psychological needs of children with hygiene kits and trained experts who can help them process their experiences. Many have been traumatized by violence in their home countries and a long and harrowing journey to the border, during which unscrupulous smugglers often prey upon the weak. Children are especially defenseless against harm and exploitation in chaos, and their terrifying experiences are compounded when they end up in a prison-like cell.
We ask those responsible for caring and protecting these children while in their custody to cooperate with agencies like ours, whose sole goal is to look out for the best interest of children. This is not a debate about immigration. These are children, not criminals. There is a time and a place to discuss the systemic problems and longer-term policy solutions. What we should all be able to agree on — right now — is that vulnerable children in detention centers have immediate physical and psychological needs, and we must do everything in our power to meet them. It’s unconscionable for us not to do our utmost to protect those who are least able to protect themselves.
Carlos Carrazana, chief operating officer of Save the Children, recently visited a detention center in McAllen, Texas. Published in USAToday, July 29.