Faced with a human rights disaster on the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration did what it does best: duck and weave.
On Monday, the administration deployed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to answer the press' questions about the growing moral concern over Attorney General Jeff Sessions' zero-tolerance immigration policy, which has led to forced family separations. Over 2,342 children have been taken from their families since May 5, according to FWD.us. [Ed. note: On Wednesday, June 20, President Trump bowed to bipartisan pressure and issued an executive order to detain the families together rather than separating them. Officials will continue to criminally prosecute everyone who crosses the border without documents, but they said they plan to establish facilities where parents and children will be housed together.]
Instead of showing one ounce of human empathy, Nielsen blamed Congress and offered Trump's two immigration bills, which include funding for his unnecessary border wall, as the solution. It is, in fact, the zero-tolerance policy that has created the separations — a policy Trump could end as quickly as he started it.
Instead of acknowledging the conditions in migrant detention shelters, which have been extensively reported on, Nielsen pretended not to have seen the photos of children in cages and (as usual) blamed the media for creating a false narrative.
When a reporter asked her why the government has only released photos of the boys being held — "Where are the girls? Where are the young toddlers?" — Nielsen said, "I don’t know." She added that after 72 hours (she had previously said 48), most children are transferred from DHS (Department of Homeland Security) care to HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) care, effectively washing her own hands of the matter. The DHS reportedly has limited space (only about 2,700) beds to house families together, at three detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania.
"I don’t know what pictures you’re speaking about," Nielsen said when reporters pressed her, later adding, "I will look into that."
Meanwhile, where are the girls? What we do know, we know through stories that trickle out: The voice of a 6-year-old Salvadoran girl pleading to call her aunt as other children cry in the background. A 16-year-old girl teaching other kids how to change a little girl's diaper, because she had been separated from her parents and was now living in a chain-link cage with other children, "traumatized" and "curled up in a little ball."
Federal health officials say there are nearly 11,000 unaccompanied migrant children currently in HHS custody, of whom Nielsen claims only about 2,000 came over the border with their families. The shelters are currently almost at capacity, so there have been discussions of housing kids in places like military bases and even tent cities. Children are detained for an average of 56 days.
According to a Human Rights Watch report released in February, detainees in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody — which falls under the DHS — sleep in ice-cold cells under Mylar blankets and don't receive basic hygiene products like soap, toothpaste, or toothbrushes. Several women said they didn't have access to menstrual hygiene products while in the cells, and weren't allowed to access their personal items. Many reported being unable to shower for days.
"We spent two days with no toothpaste, no clothes except the ones we were wearing, and no chance to wash," Melanie G., a Guatemalan woman detained in California with her son, told HRW. "There weren’t any sanitary napkins in the first place I was held."
Kirstjen Nielsen may have no idea about the conditions impacting children apprehended at the border, but there are many nonprofit organizations working on the ground. If you don't believe the media, believe the people working with migrants every day.
"We have seen first-hand the damage and horror that separating and jailing children and families has inflicted on these kids," FWD.us head of policy and coalitions Alida Garcia said in a statement. "We have seen buses filled with shackled parents who are criminalized as a result of the 'zero tolerance' policy, all of whom are set to be sentenced for seeking hope, safety, and security in the United States. We have heard first-hand accounts from those in this region aware of the regular turning away of families at ports of entry trying to seek asylum."
Being separated from their families can impact young children's mental health. The American Psychological Association has denounced the Trump administration's policy of family separation, saying it "is not only needless and cruel, it threatens the mental and physical health of both the children and their caregivers."
"Psychological research shows that immigrants experience unique stressors related to the conditions that led them to flee their home countries in the first place," the association said. "The longer that children and parents are separated, the greater the reported symptoms of anxiety and depression for the children."