Texas Should Treat Asylum-Seeking Migrant Families with Respect and Dignity

On July 12, 2019, the Texas Legislature will hold a joint hearing of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety and International Relations and Economic Development Committees related to the increase in asylum-seeking migrant families at the Texas-Mexico Border.

There are some truly appalling moments in American history where we wonder how things could have happened and how they continued for so long. Moments like the enslavement of millions of Africans, and the subsequent segregation and denial of basic constitutional rights of African-Americans; the mass killings and forced removal of Native Americans from their lands; the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers, many of them U.S. citizens, during the 1930s; and the internment of Asian-Americans during World War II, just to name a few.

Today we have an opportunity to shine light on one of these horrific moments, start the process to end it, and begin the long journey toward healing. Our government should not be subjecting children in their care — no matter their country of origin — to cruel, traumatizing and inhumane conditions. As they await their asylum decisions, these children should be in safe and clean environments with their parents, relatives or sponsors. During any brief stays in government-operated or supported facilities, children should have access to sufficient food, clean water, beds, clean clothes, soap, and other necessities, in addition to recreation, health and educational services. Minors should not be detained in jail-like settings.  

The situation at the United States-Mexico border for asylum-seeking migrants from Latin American countries has reached a federally-created humanitarian crisis point that leaders must address immediately.

As the El Paso Times reports: “The little-known Border Patrol facility at Clint has suddenly become the public face of the chaos on America’s southern border, after immigration lawyers began reporting on the children they saw — some of them as young as 5 months old — and the filthy, overcrowded conditions in which they were being held. A review of the operations of the Clint station, near El Paso’s eastern edge, shows that the agency’s leadership knew for months that some children had no beds to sleep on, no way to clean themselves and sometimes went hungry. Its own agents had raised the alarm, and found themselves having to accommodate even more new arrivals. ”[1]

The Center for Public Policy Priorities is committed to the health of all people living in Texas including migrant children and families at immigration detention centers, camps, and Office of Refugee and Resettlement (ORR) shelters. CPPP has been the Texas grantee for the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s national KIDS COUNT Project for more than 25 years. CPPP recommends that we remove barriers to well-being for children in immigrant families and keep them with their parents. In addition, barriers to accessing educational, medical, and nutritional resources should be removed to improve the well-being of children in immigrant families. [2]

The data reinforces this.

Texas is home to nearly 7.4 million children. Nearly half are Hispanic or Latino, 32 percent are White, 12 percent are Black, 4 percent are Asian, and 3 percent are multiracial or another race. One in four Texas kids (more than 1.8 million) live with at least one non-citizen parent (including authorized residents). Of those children, 90 percent are U.S. citizens.[3] Texas leaders should not consider immigrant children and families as “others” and ignore their plight. Immigrant children of all statuses are part of the Texas story, and their futures are just as valuable and intrinsic to the future of Texas.

Any conversation about child well-being in Texas must include the thousands of children that the federal government is holding in makeshift tents, family detention centers (often referred to as “baby jails”), and ORR shelters. The Texas Pediatric Society, Children’s Defense Fund, and Texans Care for Children have shared a large body of research that unequivocally documents how detaining children has detrimental impacts on a child’s physical and mental health and development. Direct reports from physicians, psychologists and social workers who have assessed children at the Dilley and Karnes Family Detention Centers in Texas are no different.[4] [5] [6]

Children are expressing broad general anxiety along with signs of major depression disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicidal ideations. Younger children are regressing to earlier developmental stages, losing their ability for example to be toilet trained or weaned from breastfeeding. Women and children report wait times up to fourteen hours to receive medical care. These wait times routinely occur in cases of serious and urgent conditions. Both Texas-based family detention centers have been fraught with reports of child abuse, child sexual abuse, inadequate medical care, limited services for children who speak languages other than English or Spanish, and violations of human rights.  For example, families lacked basic access to medical, dental, and healthcare services, continued care for pre-diagnosed medical conditions, basic nutrition, age-appropriate educational services, and basic developmental needs such as diapers, cribs, and space and time for crawling and physical activity.

Experts are still gathering data on newly created detention camps, but reports coming from pediatricians, lawyers, and those that have been granted opportunities to visit are terrifying.

As the New York Times reported, “Outbreaks of scabies, shingles and chickenpox were spreading among the hundreds of children and adults who were being held in cramped cells, agents said. The stench of the children’s dirty clothing was so strong it spread to the agents’ own clothing — people in town would scrunch their noses when they left work. The children cried constantly. One girl seemed likely enough to try to kill herself that the agents made her sleep on a cot in front of them, so they could watch her as they were processing new arrivals.”[7]

The impact goes beyond the migrants held in detention centers and processing centers. According to a survey of families in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, the prevalence of symptoms of childhood PTSD is potentially higher in the Valley. The survey also found nearly 1 in 5 children of all survey respondents (regardless of immigration status) experience symptoms of PTSD, compared with 1 in 20 children in the U.S. The threat of a parent’s detention or deportation is a toxic stressor. Toxic stress changes the biology of a child’s brain, including areas of the brain that deal with aspects like attachment or fear, and does so in ways that cannot necessarily be repaired.

The study found that within the survey respondents, 1 in 4 children of undocumented parents in the Valley experience stress because of a parent’s immigration status, compared to 1 in 10 children of parents with a protected status. The survey found that 40 percent of undocumented respondents have a child who shows symptoms of school avoidance anxiety, compared to less than one-third with protected status and one-fifth among people with American citizenship. Almost one-fourth of undocumented parent respondents reported that their child had trouble keeping upgrades, compared to four percent of protected status parents.[8]

We need much more research and reforms to address the enormity of the impact on children and border communities. CPPP is committed to joining the chorus of our partners including the American Pediatric Society, Border Network for Human Rights, LUPE, MALDEF, the Children’s Defense Fund, Texans Care for Children, the ACLU and others that have all called for ending and reforming unjust migrant detention in all its forms.

We applaud Chairs Rafael Anchía and Poncho Nevárez for holding the July 12 hearing and for the courage of the members of the Legislature and Congress that have called attention to this issue. These include State Senator José Rodríguez, who said, “Ultimately, as Americans, we work to rectify our mistakes, but too often, not until after tremendous pain has been inflicted on vulnerable populations. Jailing and separating families to deter immigrants seeking safety undermines American values, violates international law, and discredits America’s commitment to human dignity. It must end immediately.”[9]

CPPP could not agree more.

[1] Bedoya, A. (2019). What we know about the migrant detention center in Clint, Texas. El Paso Times. https://bit.ly/2XFEnXt

[2] Tingle, K., Zhang, A., and Deviney, F. (2018). State of Texas Children 2018: The Road to a Brighter Future. Center for Public Policy Priorities. https://bit.ly/2JCUsbB

[3] Tingle, K., Zhang, A., and Deviney, F. (2018). State of Texas Children 2018: The Road to a Brighter Future. Center for Public Policy Priorities. https://bit.ly/2JCUsbB

[4] Zayas, L. (2014). Declaration of Luis H. Zayas. Provided by the Office of U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA). https://bit.ly/2Lhikol. Per a 2014 affidavit from Dr. Luis Zayas, Dean of the School of Social Work at UT-Austin: “The ongoing stress, despair and uncertainty of detention — for even a relatively brief period of time — specifically compromises the children’s intellectual and cognitive development and contributes to the development of chronic illnesses that may be irreversible.” Read more: https://bit.ly/2Lhikol

[5] Hassink, S. (2015). Letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics. https://bit.ly/1XXcHXD

In a 2015 letter to the Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Dr. Sandra G. Hassink, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote: “We remain concerned that continued detainment of any children and mothers in the existing facilities puts them at greater risk for physical and mental health problems and unnecessarily exposes children and mothers to additional psychological trauma.” Read more: https://bit.ly/1XXcHXD

[6] Turcios, E. (2018). The Impact of Deportation on Mental Health, Education Outcomes, and Economic Opportunity for Colorado Kids. Colorado Fiscal Institute.  https://bit.ly/2LKhlg1

[7] Romero, S., Kanno-Youngs, Z., Fernandez, M., Borunda, D., Montes, A. and Dickerson, C. (2019). Hungry, Scared, and Sick: Inside the Migrant Detention Center in Clint, Tex. The New York Times and the El Paso Times. https://nyti.ms/2L7dREA

[8] Human Impact Partners and La Unión Del Pueblo Entero. (2018). The Effects of Forced Family Separation in the Rio Grande Valley: A Family Unity, Family Health Research Update. https://bit.ly/2SbWx26

[9] Rodriguez, J. (2018). Separating families to deter immigrants undermines American values: José Rodriguez. El Paso Times. https://bit.ly/2Jsw8tX

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