A video of a U.S. Department of Justice lawyer has gone viral and is being shared by activists, journalists, and celebrities including Ashley Graham, Chelsea Peretti, and Chris Evans as it quickly gains tens of thousands of views. Why? Because it is striking a chord with anyone and everyone concerned about the treatment of immigrants by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. government.
As hundreds of children are held for weeks on end in detention centres that experts are calling concentration camps without soap, beds, or toothbrushes, the video captures a lawyer for the Justice Department arguing in U.S. federal court whether being able to sleep and stay clean falls under the purview of “safe and sanitary.”
On Tuesday, June 18, the U.S. government attempted to argue that providing detainees with no more than a Mylar blanket and a concrete floor is not in violation of their human rights or the Flores Settlement Agreement. As part of the original Flores Settlement Agreement from 1997, minors cannot be detained for more than 20 days, a clause which has not been upheld by the current administration.
The government’s argument was met with unfiltered shock from Ninth Circuit Court judges to whom the case was being made. “It’s within everyone’s common understanding, that if you don’t have a toothbrush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, it’s not safe and sanitary,” said U.S. Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima, addressing Justice Department lawyer Sarah Fabian. “Wouldn’t everybody agree with that? Do you agree with that?” The full, hour-long video is quickly gaining views on YouTube.
While the government argues definitions of “safe” and “sanitary” for children, new reports from the New York Times and the New Yorker emerged the same week that minors are being detained and subjected to inhumane conditions. Lawyers visiting one of the facilities in Clint, TX, described a horrific scene to the NYT where minors as young as seven and eight are being asked to care for infants, toddlers without diapers soil themselves, and children who are not allowed to bathe since their detainment weeks prior.
Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School and one of only a handful of lawyers allowed to see border detention facilities firsthand, described a dire environment. “The children are locked in their cells and cages nearly all day long,” Mukherjee told the NYT. “A few of the kids said they had some opportunities to go outside and play, but they said they can’t bring themselves to play because they are trying to stay alive in there.”
Human rights and advocacy organizations fighting for the rights and reunification of migrant people are reporting that the lack of access to basic toiletries is increasing the health risks of people being detained and the likelihood of disease outbreaks.
Willamette University law professor Warren Binford was among the lawyers allowed to enter the Clint detention centre. In an interview with the New Yorker, he recounted stories from children they interviewed about a 17-year-old detainee who was made an unofficial guard in one of the rooms. He would supervise the other kids in the room and encourage them to keep the room clean. In exchange, they would reward him with extra food. “When a seven-year-old saw that this older boy was getting extra food by being helpful, he asked if he could help clean up the room and keep it neat so that he, too, could get extra food,” Binford explained. The 17-year-old reprimanded the child and when the child’s older brother stood up for him, both were punished by the guard. “And so you’ve got a guard who is manipulating these kids, very similar to what we heard about in the concentration camps.”
Since last year, at least seven children have reportedly died in immigration detention centres after almost a decade in which there were no reported deaths in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody, according to NBC News. Last year, a federal judge in California rejected the Justice Department’s attempt to amend the Flores Settlement Agreement to hold children for longer periods. Warnings of “dangerous overcrowding” have been sounded for months.
In response to reports that ICE will be conducting raids targeting immigrant families in major U.S. cities, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley issued a joint statement that they would not fund another dollar of the proposed emergency supplemental border bill that would give $1.2 billion USD to CBP and $128 million USD to ICE. “The Trump administration would rather criminalize immigrants, separate families, and detain refugees than practice empathy and compassion. Recent reports of a massive deportation operation, targeting thousands of immigrant families in major cities across the U.S. are further evidence that this president will stop at nothing in order to carry out his hateful agenda,” they said.