For so many, it was the photo of the man and his daughter — face down in the Rio Grande, two-year-old Angie Valeria’s arm slung around 25-year-old Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez’s neck — their fatal attempt to cross from Mexico to Texas made immortal in a photograph.
Then came the images accompanying the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s call for “immediate” action to address the horrendous living conditions for thousands of migrants held for days in detention centers packed dangerously beyond capacity — hands and faces pressed to windows, some holding notes pleading with government investigators for help.
What broke my heart was the drawings.
Black marker on a white background. Stick figures — most frowning, some emotionless — lined up, some standing, some lying in rows under blankets. Every face obscured by a grid — the caged enclosure surrounding their cells.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released photos of drawings last week made by three migrant children, ages 10 and 11, depicting their experiences while in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody. They are, as AAP immediate past President Dr. Colleen Kraft told CNN, “realistic and horrific.”
“When a child draws this, it's telling us that child felt like he or she was in jail,” Kraft said.
The father and daughter in the river. The faces against the windows. The stick-figure children in magic marker cages.
It’s not how things are supposed to be in the United States. It’s not who we’re supposed to be.
When confronted with these truths — captured on film, written in reports from both journalists and the U.S. government itself — the easiest thing to do is close our eyes.
We wince. We turn our heads. We look away.
Don’t. Don’t look away. Don’t look away from any of this.
We live today in a relentless cycle of outrage. After so long, we often overreact to comparatively minor offenses; maybe we grow numb; we lose sight of what is worthy of our tears, our screams, our action.
Children detained for days, denied showers and hot meals, is worth our outrage. Children caring for infants they do not know is worth our outrage. Children dressed in clothing crusted with bodily fluids is worth our outrage.
President Donald Trump has blamed these conditions on his predecessor, Barack Obama. While Obama did not initiate Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that has resulted in so many family separations, it is true that migrant detainees were subjected to poor conditions under the Obama administration. It is also true that these conditions are worse today.
Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, told NBC News that, on a scale from 1 to 10 with 10 the worst, Obama-era conditions were an 8 or 9. He rated conditions under the Trump administration at a 12 or 13. He attributed that to the length of time people are held, the overcrowding in facilities and the “sheer inhumanity” of the environment.
So no, this problem is not new. Trump did not create it. But it has reached a crisis level under his administration, and it is up to him — and us — to do better for these children.
We cannot forget that these are children.
“If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come,” the president tweeted last week. “All problems solved!”
This does nothing for the children who were too young to decide whether to stay in their home countries or to seek refuge in the U.S. — too young to know what would await them across the border. These children are already here, and they are suffering under our watch.
The AAP is trying to help.
“What these children are experiencing is extraordinarily traumatizing and it can be seen immediately and it can be seen years later,” pediatrician and AAP spokeswoman Dr. Marsha Griffin told Time magazine.
The president himself has argued that Customs and Border Protection workers are not medical professionals. The agency should welcome assistance from pediatricians, at the very least. This is a stopgap solution as we await potential court intervention and federal policy changes.
There is no question our immigration system is beyond flawed, that major changes are needed. That will take time. But the need for immigration reform does not preclude humane treatment now for children who are brought to our country in pursuit of a better, safer life.
What happens to them under our watch will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
“I think if you hear a child’s voice or a child’s depiction of what they’ve just been through, it can possibly awaken the consciousness of this country,” Griffin told Time.
Look at the photos. Read the reports. Call your elected officials. Demand action. Demand humanity.
Look at the drawings.
Don’t look away.
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