Child Migrants in the U.S. 'As an American, I Feel Deeply Ashamed'

U.S. President Donald Trump says he has put an end to the separation of migrant families. But 2,300 children remain incarcerated with no plan in place to reunite them with their parents. Human rights lawyer Michael Bochenek has visited them.

Migrants in a holding facility in McAllen, Texas.
AP/U.S. Customs and Border Protections Rio Grande Valley Sector

Migrants in a holding facility in McAllen, Texas.

Interview Conducted by  in New York


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Bochenek, you recently spent time in two detention centers for immigrants and their children in Texas. What did you see?

Bochenek: The first one was a facility where people are placed right after apprehension at the border. They call those facilities "hieleras" (freezers) because they're kept unreasonably cold. The cells are very, very small and yet they hold up to 30 people. They have concrete floors and concrete benches lining the walls.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why so cold?

Bochenek: We were never given a good explanation for the cold. The border patrol said they keep the cells at a comfortable temperatute. But some are only around 55 degrees (13 degrees Celsius). You can imagine what that feels like if you're sitting on a concrete bench in wet clothing.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That first facility housed adults and children together?

Bochenek: Yes, that's a facility intended for short term only. Most people spend 12 to 24 hours there. Only afterwards do the adults and the children become separated.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How does that happen?

Bochenek: The adults are charged in federal court with unlawful entry into the country, which is a misdemeanor. Upon transfer to the court, federal marshals determine that the children are now unaccompanied and sends them on another track. They treat them as if they never arrived with parents at all.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Because once you're charged, your child is separated from you by law. (Trump's executive order instructs the Department of Justice to change that, but it's a cumbersome process that could take some time.)

Bochenek: Yes. The kids immediately go to a different facility. That facility is a large, warehouse-type arrangement with what looked like cages made from chain-link fencing. The migrants who have been there refer to it as the "dark kennel" because they feel like they're being held like animals.

About Michael Garcia Bochenek
  • HRW
    Michael Garcia Bochenek is senior counsel to the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch, focusing on juvenile justice and refugee and migrant children. Previously, he worked as director of policy and law for Amnesty International¿s secretariat in London.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How were the children treated there?

Bochenek: The facilities are incredibly basic. The kids get food and a roof over their heads but they're not getting the kind of care and support you expect for children. I saw a five-year-old boy on a green mat with an emergency blanket made from foil. He looked entirely lost. Nobody had ever spoken to him about what was happening. He hadn't seen his parents in a day or more.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How are these kids dealing with the situation?

Bochenek: They are completely traumatized with no sense of what happens next. There were no caregivers looking out for them, only uniformed guards checking off lists of names. The children are sitting in a detention facility, with the lights on 24 hours a day.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why are the lights kept on? That borders on torture.

Bochenek: They told us it was for security reasons. It certainly doesn't comply with national or international standards in any sense.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What happens with sick children in need of medication?

Bochenek: All their property is taken and stored. Everybody there had paper tickets as receipts. But of course there's always problems getting stuff back in the end. That also applies to medication. I heard from some parents whose child was asthmatic that the necessary medication was locked up with their other possessions.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there medical care in the detention centers?

Bochenek: There seemed to be no way of ensuring the medical needs of the children. Only some basic medical screening.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It sounds like a situation that would be tough enough for adults to handle. How can children in their formative years process this, even if they are eventually reunited with their parents?

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Bochenek: It is deeply traumatizing. It has a very, very long-term effect on children. Studies have told us over and over again that detention is trauma, that separation is trauma. It doesn't go away even if it's over. The effects stay for a long time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Where do these kids come from?

Bochenek: They're largely from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Many of them spoke about about fleeing death threats, violence, rape of women and girls, extortion and other threats of harm by gangs.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How will they be reunited with their parents, if at all?

Bochenek: We do not know. These agencies don't have a good record tracking people. Even before now there were serious problems. Now they created even more problems.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have researched child abuse all over the world. Have you ever seen anything like this?

Bochenek: No. I don't know any other country that has used family separation on this scale. Everything about this is unique.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How does that make you feel?

Bochenek: It's morally reprehensible. As an American, I feel deeply ashamed. Our country considers itself a democracy whose power resides with the people. I hope that public opinion will judge this clearly and that this policy will become untenable.

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