A Nightmare Endures — and Our Vigil Continues

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9 mins read
detention center

This week, I watched with incredulity as the perpetrator of war crimes (as defined by the Geneva Convention) revisited the scene of some of his cruelest acts: the border wall. Trump returned to much applause from his weak, fearful followers and morally bereft politicians whose ambitions overpower the inconvenience of oath, conscience or faith. The hollow, dishonest and hateful rhetoric Trump continues to spew is a stain upon America. Thankfully for our nation and the world, this man holds no office and the power he has is only that which people continue to give him. We speak now to President Biden, Vice President Harris, Secretary Mayorkas, and Secretary Becerra, and all those with the power, conscience and heart to do the hard but necessary things on behalf of those who are powerless to protect themselves. 

A lifetime ago, in the spring of 2017 prior to Trump’s policy of family separation at the border, I had never been to a war zone. I had never personally witnessed a humanitarian crisis. I had never seen genocide. That changed when I began visiting ICE detention centers, CBP processing centers and the encampment at Matamoros. I cannot unsee what I witnessed: the intentional infliction of trauma on innocent children on American soil by a government acting in our name. 

Meanwhile, Trump and many others lied to justify the indefensible. The vast majority of those seeking refuge at our southern border weren’t drug dealers or rapists. They were families and children fleeing unspeakable violence and desperate conditions. Many children traveled alone for thousands of miles with no money, no resources, and no family or friends. Some of the children I met had been beaten, raped, kidnapped or used as forced manual labor along the way. Many of these children had babies of their own, the result of being raped by gang members in their country of origin. They hoped to arrive at the border and present themselves to CBP according to the legal process for asylum. 

What awaited them was not a merciful, or lawful, welcome. They were stripped of whatever possessions they managed to keep during their perilous journey, sometimes even the clothing on their backs. They were taken to a “human dog pound” to roast in the Texas sun, then to the “freezer” where they were kept in frigid holding cells. Without explanation, appropriate care, food or medicine, they were caged in facilities with staff ill-equipped to care for them. Trump’s proclamation that “you have to take the children away” was parrotted down the chain of command by sycophants such as then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And so they did. CBP facilities housed sick children in abusive and inhumane conditions. What they endured at the hands of the government of the wealthiest nation on earth made many of those of us who witnessed it question the very existence of God. 

While the compassion of President Biden and his newly formed executive branch, and their shifting enforcement priorities and memos, demonstrate much-welcome progress, for tens of thousands, the cruelty is still not over. Our urgent pleas to transfer children quickly from CBP custody into the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) were heard. However, our goal that children be temporarily and humanely cared for while relatives and guardians were quickly located and vetted has yet to be fully realized. Child detention continues even as the parents of 368 migrant children separated at the border under Trump have yet to be found.  Many linger, not merely in “appropriate” institutional care (which we already know is harmful to children), but at some of these facilities, the inhumane treatment continues.

As their suffering continues, so must our vigil. Heartbreaking conditions endure in at least one US migrant camp housing children, including allegations of sexual abuse, while COVID-19  runs unabated through the mostly unvaccinated population and lice outbreaks are common.  Insufficient medical care, food and clothing plague facilities run in large part by for-profit corporations. Even large-scale logistical challenges can’t justify the continued suffering of children. We must insist that the children be freed; fortunately, 80% of them have family in the US waiting to take custody. It is time to speed up reunification and placement. Further, while they are in our care we must ensure that they are protected from sexual, physical or mental abuse. We must insist that children not be housed in facilities run by the for-profit private prison industrial complex and instead be housed safely with access to credentialed educational, legal and medical resources. And most importantly, children should be allowed to frequently and freely communicate with their family members, which is essential for them to contextualize and eventually overcome the trauma of their journey and their institutionalization.

Make no mistake, the Biden Administration faces incredible challenges as they work to rebuild an immigration system torched by Trump and replace the cruelest of policies and people who willingly executed them. Rebuilding our immigration infrastructure is more than just swapping out gutted facilities and staff, and rewriting the rules, policies and procedures. We must eradicate the hateful cultural disease of racist nationalism from the ranks of all involved government agencies and contractors. This is not a small nor swift task. 

We must not look away.  From us to whom so much is given, much is required.

To the army of attorneys, medical professionals and activists, past and present, who work every damn day fighting for rule of law and humanity, I am humbled by your work and forever grateful. We all feel fatigue as we battle on so many fronts; for democracy, rule of law, equality and human rights, but we cannot give up. As our country deals with the sheer numbers of desperate people arriving at the border, the horrors and fear of the pandemic, and the insanity of intense partisanship and racism, we must hold ourselves accountable. Our shared responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us prevents us from looking away until this work is done. 

Protest and Candlelight Vigil on Monday, July 12

Please join me on Monday, July 12, 2021 at 8 pm (local time). Light a candle to again shine a light on this issue. Participate individually or with your family or community and be sure to share your images using #LightsforLiberty and #DontLookAway. We all must bear witness to our collective morality.

If you are in DC, please join a protest and vigil in front of HHS (200 Independence Ave., SW) from 5 – 8 pm ET on Monday, July 12, 2021 You can find more information here.

Photo credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images


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Toby Gialluca is an attorney and activist working to leave her children a just and habitable planet.

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