An eight-year-old Guatemalan boy died in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) late Christmas Eve. His death came only two weeks after the death from dehydration of a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl also in the custody of CBP. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is demanding an investigation into what it calls CBP's "systemic failure" to protect the health and welfare of children in CBP facilities. Apologies and promises of reforms aren't going to cut it. Things have to change. But the problem is actually worse than what the major news outlets are telling us.
Since the surge of unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States began in 2014, according to ProPublica, migrant children have filed hundreds of police reports documenting sexual assaults inside children's shelters, which have received $4.5 billion in funding for housing and security services. Most of those sexual assaults have been at the hands of guards and other CBP employees. Federal investigators warn further that the Trump administration has quietly waived fingerprint background checks of staff members and had allowed "dangerously few" mental health counselors at a notorious tent camp housing 2,800 children in Texas.
ProPublica wrote recently, "Just five days after he reached the United States, a 15-year-old Honduran boy awoke in his Tucson, Arizona, immigrant shelter ... to find a youth care worker in his room, tickling his chest and stomach. When he asked the man, who was 46, what he was doing, the man left. But he returned two more times, rubbing the teen's penis through his clothing and then trying to reach under his boxers. 'I know what you want. I can give you anything you need,' said the worker, who was later convicted of molestation."
Similarly, "In 2017, a 17-year-old from Honduras was recovering from surgery at the shelter when he woke up to find a male staff member standing by his bed. 'You have it very big,' the man said, referring to the teen's penis. Days later, that same employee brushed the teen with his hand while he was playing video games. When the staff member approached him again, the boy locked himself in a bathroom."
Even worse, just a few months ago, a youth care worker at one Arizona shelter was arrested for molesting eight boys over the course of a year. The employee, Levian Pacheco, pleaded guilty to 11 sex offenses and had been working without a full background check. During the course of the investigation, he also admitted to being HIV-positive and to having forced himself on the boys.
ProPublica says that the hundreds of police reports of sexual molestation of migrant children come from at least 70 of the 100 detention facilities around the country where the children are being held and involve children as young as six. (The facilities are run by both Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.) One child psychiatrist interviewed by ProPublica said that "If you're a predator, it's a gold mine. You have full access and you have kids that have already had this history of being victimized."
The abuse of helpless, detained migrant children is not new, unfortunately. But the Trump administration's harsh policy of separating children from their parents and of detaining literally every child trying to enter the country as an asylum seeker has increased pressure on the facilities, which are hard-pressed to provide adequate staffing for children, many of whom are already fleeing from personal trauma and who now find themselves in legal and personal limbo.
Goodness knows that we have a lot of problems in this country. Goodness knows that we have a president who is not engaged in policy except as it affects his own well-being. But we're talking about children here. We're talking about the safety and security of minors who are unable to fend for themselves.
Republicans certainly can be opposed to undocumented migration and still not turn their backs on children. And Democrats can insist that money be appropriated to ensure the safety and physical well-being of these same children without being accused of being "weak on illegal immigration." Forget the politics. We can't lose our humanity.