By Claudia Kolker
How Detaining Children Hurts The American Workers Who Guard Them
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle as "When we hurt migrants, we hurt Americans"
I was standing in a trailer in South Texas, anxiously sipping from a Styrofoam coffee cup, when the lawyer rushed in. “Can you help?” she said. “There’s a 9-year-old who will not stop crying.”
It was a relief to face a problem I might be able to fix. I had spent that whole week in mid-July in this temporary building, interpreting for detained asylum seekers who had just been reunited with their children.
I’d volunteered there precisely to stop feeling helpless. Under the zero-tolerance immigration policy launched in April, all people who crossed the border without documents — even asylum seekers — were now treated as criminals. When parents went to court, their children were taken from them and placed in shelters.
Five months later, the family separation policy has been suspended, but thousands of children who have crossed the border are still held for long periods in detention centers and tent cities across the country. Though my understanding of asylum law was limited, I knew I wanted to help those kids. Most of all, I wanted to see what was going on for myself.
What I saw at the border was far worse than I imagined, not only because of what these families experienced, but because of what had happened to the American workers guarding them.
I was hardly alone in wanting to help detained kids. The volunteers I worked with that week included Republicans, Democrats and independents; Baptists, Evangelicals, Catholics and Jews; mothers, nuns and young men. Laura, the corporate lawyer for whom I translated, had grabbed a flight from Kansas City. I drove from Houston.
The 60 or so women we met that week had been reunited with their children only days before. All were following the legal procedure to seek asylum, after crossing over from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. For some, our job was preparing them for “credible fear” interviews, the first step in filing an asylum case. A negative outcome from one of these interviews can lead to deportation.
For others — women who had already failed this interview, women without legal counsel and distraught over their missing children — we helped document why they were afraid to go home, with the hope they would get another chance at a hearing.
My first surprise that week, however, was not what our clients were fleeing. It was the brutality in their everyday lives. Every woman I talked to, and every one that my colleagues interviewed, had endured some form of sexual or physical violence at home.
Domestic violence, though, is no longer cause for asylum in most cases. What potentially is: persecution by criminals or government, lack of protection from police, forced labor, oppression for race or political belief. For a woman whose whole village or neighborhood has been strangled by gangs and poverty, though, it can be hard to explain to Americans how these all entwine. In the first interview I did, a Honduran mother tried to explain why she knew police wouldn’t protect her from a violent stalker. It took her awhile to find an example that showed us: Her neighbor in their remote village was murdered along with her children in her house by a gang. The police never showed up to investigate.
It was stories like this that kept me returning to the break room to gulp caffeine. Other interpreters and lawyers were there for the same reason, silently swallowing coffee or chips. It helped to glance up at the wall, covered with crayoned pictures of mermaids and superheroes drawn by detained kids. They reminded me of the sketches with which I used to amuse my own daughters. So when the lawyer came in for help, I thought I know what to do.
But the girl would not stop crying.
Inside a cubicle, her mother sat quietly. This interview was her one chance for help: most detainees get no counsel and have no clue what U.S. asylum criteria might be. But the interview couldn’t start because her daughter leaned face down on the desk, shaking with sobs.
I obviously couldn’t carry out my original plan for distraction: a princess-y portrait of the girl herself. So I decided to sketch the person she loved most in the world, her mother. Sure enough, never once showing her face, the girl slowly began pointing which colors I should use. The lawyer started asking questions.
But when I looked up to draw in the mother’s long hair, she was hiding her face as well. Staring downward, cheeks drenched with tears, she never stopped whispering her answers to the lawyer’s questions.
What if the child resumed crying, now that I had nothing to draw? I started making things up. Around the mom’s half-finished portrait, I drew vines, bluebirds, green trees bursting with roses and grapes. Still facing downward, the girl joined in. “I love you Mami,” she wrote neatly in Spanish. Then, almost miraculously, she began to color. By the time Laura tapped to signal a new case, the girl was sitting up, drawing and smiling intently.
The next interview made my stomach churn all over again. All that week Laura and I had worked with a Salvadoran mother who had seen authorities in her town beat someone nearly to death. This time, she told us what she experienced herself. At the hands of Americans.
Shivering and exhausted after crossing the Rio Grande River, the woman and her small daughter encountered U.S. border agents almost immediately. The officials drove them to the Port Isabel detention center in Brownsville — and the hielera. The icebox. A routine, and controversial, part of the border control process, the hielera is an ice-cold cell with concrete floors where newly apprehended migrants are jammed often for days. Forbidden to huddle for warmth, with no protection except Mylar sheets, the women in the hielera begged border control agents for sweaters.
“They laughed,” the mother told us. “A group of them fanned themselves and said, ‘Whew, it’s hot in here! Let’s turn up the air conditioning.’”
From the hielera, officers transferred the woman to the perrera, the dog kennel. Here, in a cell crammed with dozens of other women, trays of disgusting food such as still-frozen bologna were kicked across the cell floor. She told us that once, after a day with no food at all, a guard opened the door at 3 a.m. and hurled in packs of crackers, as if to animals.
But the mother we were interviewing was too traumatized to eat at all. Within hours of arriving, officials had taken her daughter. “They took me out to go sign papers,” she told us. “They said she’d be there when I got back.” But when she returned to the perrera, her daughter was gone.
That was May 23. The girl would not see her mother until the third week of July, just days before I met them.
Migrating to the United States is a known risk. One in six Latin American women who make the journey are raped. This threat in mind, some mothers even give their girls birth control injections before starting out. But the Salvadoran woman and her daughter had been threatened with murder and had no choice. Other migrants have been driven by poverty so intense that 70 percent of their communities suffer from malnutrition. Most never heard - or imagined - that the United States might separate them from their children.
When the Salvadoran mother was finally reunited with her skinny, soft-spoken daughter, whose favorite recollection of home was going to school, the girl was altered. “Why did you sign me away?” were her first words to her mother. “Why did you give me to a shelter?” U.S. border officials had told her that her mother abandoned her. For two months she had no choice but to believe them.
At late-night dinners all that week, my co-workers described similar stories. One talked to a small boy who said he was told by guards to sign a paper he couldn’t read or have his fingers chopped off. Another interviewed an 8-year-old who watched guards kicking a teenager over and over in the ice box room. Child welfare workers and lawyers have documented thousands of similar reports.
“Why did they treat us like we were not human?” the Salvadoran mother asked. Some guards, she added, were Latino. “Why did they do this to their own people?”
When the interview ended, I ran into the lawyer who asked for help with the crying girl. “Thanks for the help,” the lawyer said tersely. Then she summarized what the girl’s mother had whispered to her. What both had survived, for years, in the house of a gang member before they fled.
“That’s not why the girl was crying,” the lawyer added. “She won’t talk about that even with her mother. She was crying because they were separated when they got here, and she didn’t see her mother again for 52 days. She has been crying nonstop since they were reunited.”
I had fixed precisely nothing, in other words. My absurd attempt at American mom magic merely showed how little I understood what was in front of me.
Leaving for South Texas five days earlier, I had wanted to support due process, and to act on the same empathy that millions of others have felt for children snared in the zero-tolerance policy. What I hadn’t grasped was how many regular Americans were no longer just executing that policy. They were purposely sharpening its cruelty.
It hit me that the faint nausea I’d felt that week had nothing to do with all the junk food I ate. I was unable to digest what I was learning.
I have lived in Texas for more than 20 years. I’ve spent lots of time in small communities where the local prison is the best employer. And like many Texans, I have friends from border towns who grew up alongside people who became officers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and border control. My own family circle includes good men and women who have worked as corrections officers in places like the South Texas town where I was volunteering.
What had happened to so many of these working dads and moms, that they could see a girl freezing in a concrete room and laugh? How could these regular Americans tell a boy his fingers would be severed if he disobeyed? The zero-tolerance detention policy was designed with full knowledge of how it would damage children. But its most far-reaching effect may be the way it has distorted American men and women who enforce it.
Border control agents don’t differ much from millions of other hard-working Americans with blue-collar jobs, families to support and the luck to find secure work in places with limited options. Typically, they view themselves as good guys, defending Americans’ safety like firefighters or policemen.
Even in good times such jobs take a toll: ICE ranks near last of all government agencies in employee satisfaction, and corrections officers overall endure PTSD rates equal to those of war veterans. Now, though, the border agents’ adversaries are children. And the number in custody is soaring.
While unauthorized crossings overall dropped sharply in the past 20 years, the number of migrant children in U.S. custody has skyrocketed to the highest levels ever, from an average of 4,000 two years ago to more than 14,000 today. Extreme vetting rules mean far fewer of these children are being released to family and friends. And the government has now proposed new rules allowing detention of migrant children indefinitely, in facilities free of state supervision.
“These officers are under untenable pressure,” a researcher on corrections officers told me. Of the border agents who purposely torment migrant children, “there’s a lot of in-group pressure, possibly led by a few strong personalities,” she said. Like military and police culture, she said, immigration officers have a “culture of toughness and unity. If you’re not with them you’re against them.”
The repercussions for soldiers and other people who engage in such brutality, however, are often lifelong, crippling levels of guilt and shame.
But our southern border isn’t a war zone. It’s not Vietnam or post-9/11 Abu Ghraib. We’re not living through World War II, when Americans of Japanese descent were imprisoned on our own soil. More than a century has passed since slavery made tearing children from parents a business model. We’re at peace, in a boom economy, and many Americans are deep in the work of trying to comprehend those past crimes and their lingering effect on our culture.
Given the right circumstances, most humans have it in us to hurt those with less power. It’s surprisingly easy to induce a sense of disgust in a lab, and after that’s achieved, normal people will steal and cheat others. Wearing a uniform can hold particular power, making us do things we might not otherwise — sometimes even making us better at performing those actions.
Under normal conditions, though, we’re socialized to nurture, not torture. It was the familiar call to nurture that catapulted Laura, the Kansas lawyer, from her church pew to this dusty outpost in Texas. Haunted by reports from the border, she had mulled volunteering before deciding she was too busy. Then, one Sunday morning at church, she told me, the gospel was John 21:15-19, in which Jesus asked Simon Peter three times in quick succession: “Do you love me?” Three times he responds, “Yes, you know I love you.” To which Jesus replies: “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” And finally: “Follow me.”
“I couldn’t ignore the message,” Laura said, and signed up to volunteer.
Months later I’m back at home, and whenever I dissolve into sleep I often see something familiar as well: a girl who looks a lot like my daughters, intently coloring a picture. Just as often, I see darkness and feel sick. I have the sensation that I’ve been in a place where something was wrong, something infectious. It was cruelty, spreading from person to person, among ordinary Americans not any different from me.
Claudia Kolker is the associate director of intellectual capital at Rice Business and author of “The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn From Newcomers To America About Health, Happiness, and Hope."