In the past four years, only a small handful of individuals have been granted access to U.S. government facilities to interview children and their families entering the United States and to verify that their conditions are safe, hygienic and appropriate. We are two of those citizens.
Similar visits have been quietly taking place for decades with pediatricians, child psychologists, social workers, interpreters, lawyers and attorneys like us. Yet nothing could prepare us for what we saw and documented during the Trump administration. Our trips to over a dozen institutions and our interviews with over 100 children and their families highlight the vulnerability of our nation’s moral integrity to a dangerous leader like Donald Trump. What we have uncovered challenges voters to decide who we are and what we stand for as a nation.
We have seen children torn from their parents’ arms and locked in cages, loading docks, overcrowded cells, tents in the desert, a windowless warehouse, an abandoned military base, a former Walmart, numerous border patrol stations and much more. We have seen children in uniforms in a single-row row walking past a huge mural by Trump six times a day.
We have interviewed children who describe how they are transported across state borders in vans and buses with blacked-out windows, far away from their loving parents and families. We have listened to crying parents remembering being told by U.S. government officials that their small children were taken to the showers never to be seen again.
We have witnessed how frightened parents used black Sharpie pens to write US phone numbers on their children’s arms in case the government would separate them. We have reached out our hands while small children reach deep into their pockets for tiny pieces of folded paper with numbers scribbled on it so that we can call a parent or grandparent or other family member who is desperate to know where their children are.
We have sat down with children and families in Mexican border towns who were sent there by the U.S. government, even though they are not Mexicans. Some do not even speak Spanish. The State Department has identified Mexico as a leading source of human trafficking in the United States, and it is full of drug cartels and violence. In fact, two children were killed in a homeless shelter in Tijuana before the interviewers’ planes even took off from San Diego.
Is it any surprise that the US government cannot find the parents of 545 children who were forcibly separated? Not for us. In fact, we suspect that there are many more.
America now has a choice. This month we saw Amy Coney Barrett, confirmed on Monday for a life-long appeal to the Supreme Court, sitting quietly in the U.S. Capitol and refusing under oath to take a stand at the U.S. border against the separation of children from their parents. Their children sat just a few feet away and witnessed their mother’s betrayal. America’s children are also watching.
During the presidential debate last week, a friend wrote a series of messages when Trump tried to defend what was probably the most inhumane policy of his administration. Their 7-year-old son, who followed the debate, had asked: “Mom, are children really kept in cages in America? Our friend had to explain to her son that they are. “Are they ever let out?” he continued. “Not the seven children who died,” would be the brutal answer. “Will the children ever be released?” he asked incredulously.
That depends on you, the voter. This government has made it clear how children will be treated if this president is re-elected. When asked about the policy that has led to 545 missing children and thousands more children who have suffered a life trauma at the hands of the U.S. government, the president showed no excuse. Instead, he issued a double statement, claiming that “bad people” brought the children to the United States (no, they were brought by their families) and describing them as “so well cared for” (no, they are not).
After we discovered hundreds of children last year in Clint, Texas, locked up in inhumane and unsanitary conditions, we went public with the children’s accounts and the filth and neglect we witnessed. Trump denounced the children’s reports as “fake and exaggerated” and sent Vice President Mike Pence of Air Force Two to another facility in Texas, where the children were apparently given colorful government-issued jogging suits to create a false counter-narration on camera.
We responded by making the children’s sworn testimony available to the public for reading. The testimonies describe their painful separation from their families and the hunger, dirt, cold, disease and shame they have endured at the hands of the U.S. government.
Historians will have access to the accounts of these children. As will the children of America.
What we don’t know yet is whether our children will read these accounts as the end of a dark chapter in U.S. history – or just the beginning.
That is for the voters to decide.
Warren Binford is professor of law at Willamette University. Hope Frye is a lawyer and runs a non-profit organization that helps immigrant children. They co-founded the Amplify project to document the abuse and neglect of children by the U.S. government since 2017 and share their testimonies.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors.