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.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
11 total posts
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irvkesch 06/22/2018
1. Deeply Ashamed
I am an American also but do not feel the shame the Mr. Bochenek apparently does. What about the parents responsibility for their kids welfare when they plan to enter the country illegally (note that many of the adults that accompany the chidren are not biologically related)? Does the US have the right to control their borders? What problems is the EU seeing by its immigration policy?
svkuanyin 06/22/2018
2. American history has many instances of separating children
Here is a link and a real eyeopener i.e Mexicans deported during Great Depression/ Slavery
ummeli 06/22/2018
Mr. Bochonek isn't the only American who feels deeply ashamed. I and millions of other Americans feel the same way. We know Trump is a disaster. The good news, such as it is, is that a movement has arisen to oppose Trump that is unprecedented in modern American history. We will take back our country and set things right. Failure is not an option. Please, Germany, don't give up on us. It may take some years yet, but we will rid ourselves of our despicable president.
Charlie Sommers 06/22/2018
4. I Also Feel Great Shame
Children are being traumatized for life! This madness must be stopped at any cost. Attention Americans, especially those with children, vote any scum out of office that approves of any of this nonsense. We are a country of immigrants that built a great society. Don't let it crumble before the onslaught of a megalomaniac who only cares about his image. Vote Trump out of office and let his place in history be relegated to the dustbin where it belongs.
alynsymsmusic 06/23/2018
5. Child Migrants in the USA
If the little girl was " white " everyone, including Fox News, purveyors of misinformation that would be the envy of Vladimir Putin, would have lost their minds. Not that Trump or anyone in his cabinet has them to begin with. It's sad seeing this country go down the drain, but it has and has been for some time. America is a country of refugees, asylum seekers, the refuse of the world came here in search of a better life. There is still an ultimate line of demarcation here though, and that is the color line. Police officers aren't shooting white kids running away, only black kids. And I know a lot of soldiers went to Iraq to kill Muslims, not because of their beliefs, but because of their color. Trump played on the hatred of the worst white people here and used Barack Obama as their rallying point. They're worried about losing their white supremacy. They were NEVER ENTITLED TO IT to begin with. They built this country by committing genocide on it's native inhabitants, used slaves to build their economy, used Chinese laborers to build the railroads and act sanctimonious because of their perceived threat to their privileged existence. White makes Right to those hypocritical godless sons a bitches. The founders of this country, with all of their faults, would have personally hung Trump on the White House lawn as an example to everyone. And what kind of man makes a little girl cry in fear and acts like it never happened, r worse, brags about it in secret. These are not men. Thank goodness for that photographer who got that picture in ten seconds. Otherwise, they would have denied any of it took place. Lies, Trump's calling card, only wrk on the lazy and intentionally stupid. I am neither. I hate this son of a bitch. My grandfather was in politics in the 1930's. He was a good man and honest politician, but he always called a spade a spade, and about a guy like Trump he would have said. " He couldn't shit a square brick with a square ass and a belly full of clay. "
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