Op-Ed

Migrant girls are particularly vulnerable in detention centers

On June 20, immigrant children walk in a line outside the Homestead facility where they are being housed.
On June 20, immigrant children walk in a line outside the Homestead facility where they are being housed. AP

I began and ended the past week with visits to three facilities housing migrant children who have been separated from their families. In the Mexican border town of Brownsville, Texas, I toured Casa Padre and Casa Presidente. Five days later, I visited Florida’s Homestead facility.

The Brownsville centers were brightly painted and featured murals that included images of former President Obama and our current commander-in-chief, Donald J. Trump, who inexplicably created this crisis that has brought our nation to another new low. The facility in Homestead, a former Job Corps site, by contrast was less well-maintained — serviceable, but dreary. I knew that would be the case and brought with me 50 red, white and blue balloons to lift the children’s spirits.

However, these shelters are not homes, and the decor is the least of the children’s concerns. What they want and need most are their parents.

At Brownsville, I sat in a rocking chair and held two babies. One of them was so hungry for affection that when I tried to put him down, he wouldn’t let me go. My heart still breaks for him — and all of the children torn from their families.

Why did I go all the way to the border? One of my chief concerns has been the well-being of adolescent girls in custody, in part because they were not pictured in photographs that the government released. I hosted #WhereAreTheGirls twitterstorms expressing that concern, which was shared by many.

It was a relief to see so many adolescent girls at the Homestead facility. They and other girls at shelters across the nation are starting or are already at one of the most vulnerable periods of their lives. Puberty can be difficult under the best of circumstances, so this is the worst time for them to be away from their mothers, especially those who have not yet had the talk about the kinds of changes their bodies and emotions will experience. Luckily, they are so close that I can visit them often and monitor their care to make sure they are OK and protected. They now know they have a friend and an advocate.

And if Attorney General Jeff Sessions has his way, these girls, who risked their lives to flee the sexual and physical abuse that is rampant in their native countries, could be forced to return to those horrors because he has deemed that such abuse isn’t a reason to seek asylum. We are ignoring Central America’s rates of homicide and violence against women and punishing them when they reach our borders seeking refuge.

The United States has historically been a nation that values families; a country built on the premise of embracing with open arms “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That’s the spirit that welcomed Frederick Trump from Germany in 1885, the same year that the Statue of Liberty, on which those famous lines are etched, arrived in the United States.

Fast-forward 133 years, and his grandson, Donald J. Trump, wants to build a wall around America, figuratively and literally — denying eligible immigrants the opportunity to seek political asylum and, most worrying, imprisoning those who do manage to enter the United States.

His cruel and inhumane treatment of immigrant families threw a spotlight so bright on him that he was forced to seek cover under an executive order reversing his family separation policy. The administration also has announced plans to reunite the families that have been torn apart.

Like many Americans, I have zero confidence in its ability to achieve this Herculean task. That is in part because parents and children are registered under two separate federal databases. Merging them into one could prove to be an insurmountable challenge. There also is a real risk that, if put in the wrong system, they could be targeted by human traffickers.

In the meantime, the prison industrial complex is set to reap huge financial benefits “housing” detained immigrant families. Before the ink was even dry on Trump’s executive order, the stock prices of the nation’s two largest private prison operators, GEO Group and CoreCivic, jumped. In the past two years, these companies have raked in millions of dollars housing and feeding immigrants and providing them medical treatment.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s so-called “compromise” immigration bill that the House may vote on this week calls for $7 billion to fund prison-like family detention centers. In addition, the U.S. Navy plans to construct detention centers on remote bases and build tent cities on abandoned air fields, which are even less home-like than shelters and more akin to modern-day internment camps.

Rather than continue Obama’s Family Case Management program, under which adults were fitted with ankle monitors and assigned caseworkers who supported them while awaiting their immigration court hearings, Trump wants to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on imprisoning entire families indefinitely.

Who is going to foot that bill?

The American public will, and in more ways than one. It will leave our social safety net tattered — and our nation’s reputation in shreds.

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat, represents Florida’s 24th Congressional District in Miami and Broward counties.

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