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November 22, 2017

Immigration Detention is Making Kids Sick

Last week, I volunteered with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project in Dilley, Texas—the home of the largest family immigration detention center in the United States. Located a little more than an hour north of the U.S.-Mexico border and isolated from most legal and medical services, the South Texas Family Residential Center currently detains around 1600 mothers and children fleeing from gang and cartel violence, severe domestic abuse, and other forms of persecution. Since early 2015, the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project has provided legal and advocacy services to tens of thousands of asylum-seeking mothers and their children.

Since 2014, when the Obama Administration vastly expanded family detention to deter more families from coming to the United States, Human Rights First has been actively documenting severe medical concerns at family detention facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania, including active denial of adequate medical care and a range of health and behavioral problems brought on by the experience of confinement. These egregious health concerns persist under the Trump Administration, and may be worsening as the administration seeks to expand the use of detention on adults and children alike.

Entering the security trailer of the detention center in Dilley, visitors are ironically greeted by idyllic murals of mothers and children playing and learning. But the reality of life inside the detention center is not as quaint. As I continued into the visitation trailer early Monday morning to meet with clients, I was struck by how many sick children there were.

All around me, young children were coughing, sneezing, and lethargic. Speaking with their mothers, I learned that many of these children were also vomiting and experiencing diarrhea multiple times per day, had high fevers, and conjunctivitis. Others had developed rashes as a result of drinking the tap water, which has reportedly been contaminated due to fracking in the area. Many local residents and visitors do not drink it. 

Despite these children’s obvious medical problems, they did not appear to be receiving adequate medical care. Mothers had numerous complaints of the medical clinic in the detention center, including failure to conduct physical examinations, lack of communication about symptoms and diagnoses, prescribing water instead of medicine, and illogical and incorrect diagnoses of patients. Many mothers were also reluctant to complain about the medical care their children received for fear that it would impact the outcome of their legal case. 

One mother told me her four-year-old daughter had lost eight pounds in detention over the last two to three weeks as a result of persistent vomiting and diarrhea, combined with high fever, rashes, and coughing. The clinician at the detention center diagnosed her vomiting as bulimia, claiming that this was common among young children at the center who are not accustomed to eating the type of food they provided. This girl’s mother, understandably taken aback by this diagnosis, did not return to the clinic, knowing that it would be futile.

Seeing the helplessness in this mother’s face as she pleaded with me to help the child that she had literally carried to “safety” in the United States, I couldn’t help but think that the U.S. government is as complicit in these women’s suffering as their abusers back home.

Another mother I spoke with was detained with her two-year-old daughter, who had a high fever and frequent vomiting and diarrhea. When her daughter developed severe conjunctivitis, however, she did not return to the medical clinic for a third visit. When asked why, she told me that there was no use in returning because other women who brought their children for similar problems were told to give their children more water to bring down the fever and to splash water on the eyes to cure the conjunctivitis.    

The mothers and children I met with last week call into question whether a family detention center can ever provide adequate medical care. Experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, widely recognize that even short-term detention can be permanently harmful to the physical and mental health of children. Young children often begin to exhibit behavioral and developmental regression as a result of detention, such as wetting the bed and crawling despite already knowing how to walk. These circumstances show that many of the symptoms and changes children experience in detention are, in fact, due to the circumstances of detention and worsened by the failure to provide adequate care. 

The negative health consequences mothers and children suffer on a daily basis in this detention center are more concerning than ever as the Trump Administration is aggressively working to terminate one of the few protections offered to children held in detention: the Flores Settlement Agreement, opening up the possibility of long-term detention of families.

Rather than trying to expand the detention of these vulnerable mothers and children, the U.S. government must work to eliminate family detention and provide community-based alternatives to detention. These have proven effective at ensuring compliance with immigration court appearance obligations, while also providing holistic services, at a fraction of the cost of detention. Ending family detention is also the right and humane thing to do.