By Jennifer Podkul
Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)
As a lawyer who works to protect children who come to the United States without their parents, I got a terrible, sick feeling when I heard a fifth child died in Border Patrol custody this week. I felt personally responsible. Only a few days later, we learned another 10-year-old girl had died last September—information the government had never disclosed. It was another devastating blow.
Having worked on behalf of this population for over a decade, I have met many of these kids. I have interviewed them in preparation of their legal cases and about their experiences while they were in detention, and met with kids in Central America and Mexico while they were on their journey to the United States. I have learned about their families, their hometowns, and their fears and aspirations. Their tenacity, bravery and humility are qualities I can only hope my children will possess one day.
Although immigration issues have become divisive and partisan, no one I have spoken to of any political persuasion thinks it is acceptable for a child to die when they are in our government’s custody.
Unaccompanied children, like the boy who died this week, likely already suffered greatly by the time he arrived in the U.S., like so many of these children. Can you imagine a child you know – of any age – traveling thousands of miles without a parent in search of safety? Can you imagine if it was your child? For that child to be mistreated or their pleas for help ignored while they are in our care is unacceptable.
Congress has allotted the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) millions of dollars to provide humanitarian care to children and families arriving at our border seeking protection. Yet children keep dying. Why? Why has there been no accounting of this funding to ensure that DHS is spending it appropriately? The Administration has not hired specialized personnel with child welfare training to staff facilities holding children. The Administration has violated laws limiting prolonged detention in border patrol stations. This, as the number of child deaths continues to rise.
As an advocate for unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children with KIND, my job is to promote laws and policies so children have a fair chance to tell their story and to make their case for U.S. protection. We work to ensure that these kids can access legal protections for which they are eligible under international and domestic law.
When family separation was at its most intense last summer, Americans protested around the country, called their representatives and raised money to support those harmed by the cruel policy. Now, we must demand that the Administration immediately use the special funding from Congress to treat children who come to our border more humanely. We do not need new laws or more funding. The Administration has the authority and the funding it needs to make vital changes today.
When these children are in our custody, our government – and we, as Americans – are responsible for these children. How many more children have to die?
Tonight, I will go home, hug my own children extra tight. And vow to keep fighting tomorrow. Will you?
You can start by calling on DHS and telling them to use bipartisan federal funding to provide child welfare professionals to children and families arriving at our border seeking protection: 877-227-5511.