Over 130 immigrant children are still being held in the United States’ government custody, despite widespread backlash and claims from the White House that the practice has ended. However, the practice has not ended; rather continued under secrecy and loopholes. An unknown amount of children are still in shelters and foster care, awaiting reunification with their families.
One of those children is Helen, a five-year old from Honduras who fled gang violence with her grandmother, Noehmi, and other relatives. The family traveled thousands of miles, sometimes on foot, sometimes over water. Once they reached southern Texas, they were taken into custody by U.S. Border Control. One day, an official arrived to take Helen from her grandmother. As Noehmi protested, the official told her, ‘Don’t make things too difficult‘ and they took Helen.
While the adults in Helen’s family were released to live with Helen’s mother, who had immigrated years earlier, Helen was still in the custody of the U.S. government, under the authority of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (O.R.R.). Eventually, Noehmi received information about Helen’s whereabouts; she was being held in a shelter in Houston. Noehmi and Helen’s mother, Jeny, panicked. Noehmi was so distressed she had to be checked into a local hospital, reporting inability to breathe.
At the shelter, Helen colored patriotic images of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and the Statue of Liberty while receiving an hour a day of ‘Large Muscle Activity and Leisure Time’. She had lessons on the human respiratory system and ‘the risk and danger of social media‘. Throughout it all, Helen was praised for her excellent behavior and her caseworker reported that she had no major sources of stress, aside from ‘being separated from her family’. When asked about making goals, Helen simply stressed that she wanted to be reunited with her family.
In the U.S., there are guidelines for keeping children in immigration detention, known as the Flores settlement. Helen had the right to a bond hearing that would likely result in her reunification with family. However, when Helen was taken into custody, she was given a form and checked a box on it stating ‘I do request an immigration judge’, which should have given her the right to having her custody reviewed. For reasons still unclear, in August, Helen was given another legal document regarding a Flores Bond Hearing. Obviously, the language used in the legal document would have been challenging for a five-year-old to comprehend. With assistance from officials, Helen completed the form, checking a box saying ‘I withdraw my previous request for a Flores bond hearing‘ and signing it with block letters: Helen.
Helen had effectively signed over her rights, as a five-year-old. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, lists milestones of a five-year-old’s development. Most children by the age of five should: speak very clearly, use future tense, say their name and address, count ten or more things, print some letters or numbers, and know about things used every day, like money and food. Officials were expecting above and beyond cognitive abilities from Helen; she was expected to go to court, sign legal documents, and set ‘SMART goals‘ — ambitions that are ‘Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound’. Officials ignored Helen’s status as an child, with distinct human rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) defends children’s right to treatment in ‘best interest of the child’, the ‘right to life survival and development’ and the ‘right to be heard’. The best interests of the child were ignored, her right to be heard was disregarded, and her development has been permanently been affected. The well-behaved child that her caseworker met now is ‘attention seeking‘, hiding under tables and refusing to sleep in fear her family will leave her behind again.
The cruel, inhumane actions of the Trump Administration have received widespread backlash within the United States and around the globe. While the President effectively ended the separation of children and families at the border on 20 June, 2018, many children are still in custody, alone. Some cases, like Helen’s, fell outside the A.C.L.U.’s lawsuit against the Department of Justice, as she arrived with a grandmother, rather than her parent. Many children like Helen have been miscategorized as ‘unaccompanied minors’.
The treatment of these children is criminal and an absolute violation of their human rights. Helen’s case is particularly shocking – a five-year-old with the ability to sign over her rights is not a five-year-old at all. For unclear reasons, she was deemed able to comprehend and make nuanced legal decisions. Luckily for Helen, her family was able to find legal counsel and find her, go to court and bring her home. Nonetheless, she still lives with the trauma of those eight weeks of separation, constantly afraid of being abandoned again. She told her grandmother, ‘You left me behind‘.
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