Even when immigrant children aren’t separated from their parents, the process of entering the country at the southern border can be harsh. Parents fleeing dangers at home bring their children to the U.S., but applying for asylum can have its own risks. Attorney Mary Lehman shared a story of one child, only 18 months old, and her medical plight after passing through the Border Patrol process and having her medical inhalers taken away.
Lehman traveled to McAllen, Texas, to volunteer with the Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities. As a registered Emergency Medical Technician, fluent in Spanish, her skill set was a perfect fit for helping families as they were released from Border Patrol and ICE custody.
At the Humanitarian Respite Center (which, by the way, has a GoFundMe here to help continue their great work), an immigrant can get a shower, clean clothes, and a meal, as well as some medications and a bus ticket to move on to where they will stay while awaiting further action in their asylum cases.
However, Lehman shared the heartbreaking story of one child, only about a year and a half old, who had to be transferred to a hospital after having her inhalers taken away by government agents. The story was such a shock Lehman had to double-check that she was understanding correctly.
I could not believe ICE took the inhalers and did not return them. I asked for a native Spanish speaker to confirm my translation. She could have died without those meds.
The attorney notes that the child in question uses the two inhalers a combined five times per day,
Lehman also says another patient told her that diabetes medications had been confiscated by ICE agents.
Meanwhile, the asthmatic child wasn’t the only case Lehman saw the same day the infant whose struggle to breathe resulted in a transfer to the hospital. Another infant was suffering from breathing complications from the flu, which Lehman speculates may have been worsened by their time in what is called the ‘ice box.’
It is kept at maybe 60 degrees, lights on 24/7, no windows, constant air conditioning, families sleep on the floor in cages and are normally given nothing but a reflective paper emergency blanket. They are not allowed to wash or bathe. I have talked to people who said they were kept in this “ice box” for 20 days. If the child is under 10, they are kept with their mother. If the child is under 10 and accompanied by the father, they are separated. Over 10, they are in separate cages.
These ‘ice boxes’ aren’t new — Aura Bogado (who is now with Reveal and recently exposed a government contractor storing children in an abandoned office building) covered them for Colorlines back in 2014.
Bogado interviewed an 11-year-old child who arrived as an unaccompanied minor with her younger sister and describes sitting in a concrete room trying to play games with her shivering baby sister to keep her spirits up.
We didn’t sleep and our eyes were really red… They don’t give you a bed to sleep in there. It’s really cold. You just shiver from the cold. They just give you a piece of nylon to cover yourself with.
The National Immigration Law Center has also spoken out about these conditions, using them as an exhibit in a legal challenge to the overall conditions in short-term facilities.
Lehman, speaking of her time volunteering, cited the contradiction between claims and facts about the health of children entering the country. She says that she’s heard people claim that children entering are dirty and diseased, unvaccinated and that the cold cells are intended to kill germs.
In fact, these ice box cells — hieleras — are demonstrably bad for health, as demonstrated by the suffering infant Lehman helped transfer to a hospital. Further, Human Rights Watch notes that the conditions, often including no access to soap and water, even between diapering infants and eating or feeding children, add to the risk of spreading illness. Presumably, if ICE and CBP were working so hard to prevent the spread of disease, soap and water would go a long way.
As for claims that children entering the country are bringing germs that would justify such abuse, Lehman says that’s not her experience. She says that consistently when she asked mothers about their children’s medical histories, they were able to provide proof of vaccinations. Despite stereotypes, she says that most people who can afford to make the trip are not poor and looking for handouts, describing instead people whose families own businesses or are able to take out loans to finance the trip.
I personally want to dissuade people that these are diseased, poor homeless people just wanting to come here for free stuff.
Her experience in this isn’t unique either — Time covered the ‘diseased immigrant’ myth back in 2014, noting that kids from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, for instance, may have higher vaccination rates than the U.S. as a whole — and significantly higher than some communities.
Steph Bazzle reports on social issues and religion for Hill Reporter. She focuses on stories that speak to everyone's right to practice what they believe in and receive the support of their communities and government officials. You can reach her at Steph@HillReporter.com