Esther Cepeda column: The emergency at the border is not what Trump says it is

Esther Cepeda

CHICAGO — President Trump insists that there is an emergency at the border. Yes, there are plenty of terrible and sickening emergencies involving immigrants that demand immediate attention. But these are not the issues that Trump is focusing on.

Take, for instance, the stunning recent report by Axios that there have been nearly 6,000 complaints of sexual abuse of unaccompanied minors in the custody of the U.S. government in the past four years. These complaints, provided to Axios last week by Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., were made to both the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Deutch told a House hearing on migrant family separations that these accusations detail “an environment of systemic sexual assaults by staff on unaccompanied children,” which amounted to an average of “one sexual assault by HHS staff on an unaccompanied minor per week.”

The documents from fiscal year 2015 allege that adults in positions of authority over young migrants groped them, asked for sexual favors, sexually humiliated them in front of others or showed them pornography on smartphones. The allegations also include reports against foster parents with whom the children were placed while awaiting progress on their cases.

Many of these complaints are classified as having not been investigated at all, but others reflect that the person who was accused resigned or was removed from his or her position after the allegation was reported. Some workers were reinstated after allegations against them were determined to be unfounded.

Though the criteria and procedures for investigations into such allegations are made clear in Health and Human Services policy statements, the fidelity with which such probes are undertaken has been unclear.

This is how Cmdr. Jonathan White, an HHS representative, found himself in front of a congressional subcommittee late last month to answer why the information had been delivered to Congress buried in a data dump, without explanation.

White’s initial response seemed to focus on pointing out that it was not HHS staff, but outside contractors, who were alleged to commit most of the abuses — as if that made a difference to the children involved.

And these complaints, you must remember, are just the cases of people who were able and willing to report the terrible things that happened to them in what amount to perilous circumstances.

“In detention, it is very difficult to access channels to report abuse,” said Victoria Lopez, a senior staff attorney at the Washington-based ACLU National Prison Project. “People who are in immigration detention are navigating a legal system that is incredibly complex to begin with. And they are often separated from their families — their communities — and they are under a great deal of stress.”

Lopez told me that it is very difficult to steer complaints through appropriate bureaucratic channels, and even more so for children who are unaccompanied and face language barriers, fear retribution or simply have no access to any independent authorities who can help investigate their reports of abuse.

Still, that we’re even hearing about these complaints at all goes to show the power that regular, everyday people and their representatives have in addressing horrific living conditions, abuses and other shortcomings in the many immigrant detention facilities spread out across HHS, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

To this point, Deutch was clear that last week’s hearing was “just the start of what I believe to be a very important series of questions” that the administration would have to answer for.

And anyone who cares about this issue needs to make sure they ask representatives to keep pushing for answers.

“It’s critically important for people to contact their members of Congress,” Lopez said. “Contact your representatives today. Clearly members of Congress are paying attention to immigration, so there is an important opportunity for the public to let representatives know that they want continued oversight over the detention system and for representatives to really dig deep into these allegations of horrific abuse.”

It has never been easier to tell your representative how you feel about migrant children being victimized at the border. It can be as simple as messaging through a smartphone advocacy app, sending a lawmaker a message via social media or email, or leaving a voice recording.

Just be sure to actually do it. That’s the only way we can address the real emergencies at the border that so many simply choose to ignore.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

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