I have to make one point clear before delving into the ramifications of the Trump administration’s decision to cut crucial services for unaccompanied migrant children in federal shelters: like adults in federal immigration custody, these children are detained. While it’s true that children in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody generally have better care and more freedom of movement than their adult counterparts in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, it is detainment nonetheless.
Operating from this understanding, the fact that the Trump administration is choosing to strip the more than 13,000 children currently in federally contracted shelters of basic services— including English classes, recreational activities, and legal aid—is beyond cruelty. And it is a choice.
The Trump administration has taken unprecedented steps to find resources and funds to substantially increase immigration enforcement and prioritize the criminalization of asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants. I believe the same administration simply has no desire to find resources to ensure that children in custody have access to education, legal representation, or activities that make them feel like the children they are.
To my mind, this is willful negligence — and it may also be illegal.
Shelters in ORR’s network have to comply with federal laws to maintain their contracts with the agency, but in order to operate, they must also be licensed within the state they’re located. State licensing requirements include educational and recreational provisions — but it's been reported on numerous occasions that not all of them comply with those requirements fully. Lest we forget, 10-year-old Darlyn Valle died while detained at an ORR shelter. Thousands of documented reports of sexual assault have also emerged from these shelters, and there have been numerous instances in which shelters with histories of abuse continued to receive federal funds and contracts.
Late last month, I spoke to Denise Bell, a researcher with Amnesty International’s Refugee and Migrant Rights program. She’d just come back from touring shelters in Florida and she made it clear that while “temporary influx centers” for unaccompanied minors simply “warehouse children,” permanent shelters in ORR’s network appeared to focus on “child-centered care.” At the facilities she toured, there was a classroom curriculum approved by the county and age-appropriate toys. As a country, I would hope that we can agree that these are basic services that any child should have access to, regardless of their immigration status.
But that is not the country we live in, especially not now. In my everyday work as a senior reporter covering immigration for Rewire.News, I am in direct contact with families who have been subjected to abusive, inhumane conditions while in federal immigration custody. Many were fleeing from violence in their countries of origin, only to experience more violence at the hands of people upholding the US immigration system.
I have spent years of my life reading studies and interviewing experts about the human cost of immigration enforcement. Even under the “best” circumstances— circumstances in which shelter staff are committed to properly caring for children—children are still harmed by detention. We are talking about children who have sometimes traveled hundreds of miles alone to flee violence and are now being detained without their parents’ protection and the comfort they provide. According to the American Public Health Association, children living without their parents face “immediate and long-term health consequences.”
Immigrants have been telling us about the abuse and dehumanization they face within the US immigration system for decades. Not only are we still refusing to listen, but we are now normalizing the brutalization of immigrant children.
Am I surprised by the Trump administration’s decision to cut services to children in ORR shelters? Certainly not. But it pains me that asserting that immigrant children deserve to be treated with dignity, and deserve basic care, is now seen by many as a controversial and polarizing stance.
As a journalist and a human being, I’ve never been more firm in my conviction that there is no end to the harm white supremacy and xenophobia can do. It is my firm belief that the Trump administration's decision to cut these services for immigrant children is a product of both.
Tina Vasquez is a senior reporter covering immigration for Rewire.News