Prisons Weren't Built for Children. Here's What We Can Do | Sojourners

Prisons Weren't Built for Children. Here's What We Can Do

Activists hold candles vigil outside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

This past week we began to hear about the appalling conditions at the detention center in Clint, Texas, where some 300 children had been held for weeks without soap and toothbrushes or adequate food, clothing, and bedding. Official responses from various government agencies all say the same thing: “Our short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations, and we urgently need additional humanitarian funding to manage this crisis.”

We hear that Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection don’t have the food, clothing, soap, toothbrushes, or art supplies to care for children in need. We hear that our detention facilities do not have diapers for the children or appropriate food for nursing mothers. Children in custody of the United States government haven’t had a bath in weeks.

Before the finger pointing and blaming begins let me be clear: This is not a partisan issue. This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue.

We have a moral responsibility to ensure that the conditions for every child are not just adequate but are as good as any parent would expect for their own children.

I serve as Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of the Rio Grande, which includes the city of El Paso Texas, the Big Bend region, and the entire state of New Mexico. Our diocese holds 40 percent of the border between the United States and Mexico. Border Patrol agents and their families are members of our congregations. The Episcopal Church is about half Republican and half Democrat. Yet every Sunday, we pray the same prayers to the same God, and then we get to work together, in spite of our differences, to make the world more like the one God envisions.

On this we can all agree: Children should not be treated as these children have been — not on our watch!

We are using a prison system to care for families and children. Our border system is designed for adult males who cross the border illegally seeking work. Some of the temporary facilities currently holding children are simply high-grade tents that cannot structurally offer care for children, particularly as temperatures along the Rio Grande rise. Other “detention centers” are surrounded by barbed wire. Cells are made of concrete with stainless steel toilets in the cells. There are bars on windows and doors. The staff are trained as prison wardens. When prison facilities are used to care for children, there isn’t much care. Prisons aren’t designed to care — they’re designed to punish.

I don’t think we need to close the detention centers — they may be appropriate for drug traffickers, human traffickers, and arms dealers — but children and families should not be held in prisons under any circumstances.

Here’s what we can do

Immediately, we need to stop treating asylum seekers and refugee children as if they are criminals. We need to get diapers, food, clothing, and medical care to the detention centers and Border Patrol stations.

And the resources are packed and ready to go!

For months now in towns across our diocese, the interfaith community has been stockpiling resources including food, clothing, soap, toothbrushes, art supplies, soccer balls, and backpacks. Working with the Border Patrol, the Department of Homeland Security, and local government, we have already assisted thousands of families seeking asylum to get settled in the United States with their sponsoring families.

As busloads of families have arrived in El Paso, Las Cruces, Deming, and Albuquerque, they have been greeted with love and concern, hot showers, food, and safe, comfortable places to sleep. Volunteer nurses and doctors provided medical care. After sheltering them for a day or two, volunteers have driven these families to bus stations and train stations where they traveled to sponsoring families in the United States.

We are not prison guards; we are people of faith motivated by love and compassion. We’re good at this! We only want to help. And we also have grandparents and parents and professionals (who already have background checks) who love working with and caring for children. I have no doubt these same volunteers would jump at the chance to care for the children suffering in detention centers run by the United States government.

I’m not saying the churches are the long-term solution to this humanitarian crisis — they shouldn’t be. But in the short term — TODAY! — we can deliver diapers and soap, food, and clothes. Tomorrow we can bring blankets and pillows. We want to help.

Here in the Diocese of the Rio Grande, we are reaching out to our contacts with the Border Patrol and to our interfaith partners as we endeavor to figure out how best to get the love, care, and supplies where they are desperately needed.

But we can’t simply throw more money at the problem. Even if Congress authorized significant funding, we must recognize that spending more on a prison system will only result in more cells. What we need is a completely different approach that treats refugees and asylum seekers as trauma survivors in need of care, not as prisoners.

Even while we’re supplying the government facilities with enough food, clothes, and diapers, we, as one nation under God, indivisible, can begin figuring out where we can shelter refugee children and asylum seekers so they aren’t in prison.

We can treat this situation as it is — a humanitarian crisis — and we can respond accordingly, with humanitarian disaster relief.

The secrecy surrounding where children are being detained and how many children are being held is not helping the situation. Full transparency about how each child is being treated is necessary. I call upon the Congress of the United States to conduct an investigation to ascertain where each child is being held and to disclose that information to the public so communities can partner with the government to provide the care necessary to assist those in need.

In the future

Long term, we need a system equipped to appropriately care for refugees and asylum seekers, and with all appropriate speed, to process their asylum claims. Care, not punishment is what they deserve. Good food, medical care, safe shelters, playgrounds and activities for children, language services, and legal counsel is what they need.

We also need a better system to tell the difference between criminals and asylum seekers: more judges, more social workers, more interpreters, more administrative support.

And we need a thorough investigation into this situation so that no child will ever again be treated with neglect and disrespect at the hands of the United States.

Now is not the time to make children pawns in the election game. This is not a partisan issue. It is a moral issue, and not a complicated one. We must balance our need for safety — strong border enforcement protecting the U.S. from drug traffickers, sex traffickers, and arms dealers — with a compassionate response to refugees and those seeking asylum.

The Golden Rule is not too much to ask: that we do unto other’s children as we would do to our own children.

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