A group of children hold up signs during a demonstration in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices, on June 1, 2018, in Miramar, Fla. The children were taking part in the Families Belong Together Day of Action, where demonstrators in cities across the U.S. protested against separating immigrant children from their families. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Abuse of immigrant children: a state-sanctioned crime in America?

(RNS) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions just unveiled the Trump administration’s latest assault on immigrant women and children: Denying safety to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. Having read the recently released report of violence and abuse against children perpetrated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, I am sadly not surprised by this newest policy.

CBP staff reportedly abuse children inside American detention facilities without repercussion and on our watch. We read that they:

  • Punched a child’s head three times
  • Kicked a child in the ribs.
  • Used a stun gun on a boy, causing him to fall to the ground, shaking, with his eyes rolling back in his head
  • Ran over a 17-year-old with a patrol vehicle and then punched him several times
  • Verbally abused detained children, calling them dogs and “other ugly things”
  • Denied detained children permission to stand or move freely for days and threatened solitary confinement in a small, freezing room for children who stood up
  • Denied a pregnant minor medical attention when she reported pain, which preceded a stillbirth
  • Subjected a 16-year-old girl to a search in which they “forcefully spread her legs and touched her private parts so hard that she screamed
  • Left a 4-pound premature baby and her minor mother in an overcrowded and dirty cell full of sick people, against medical advice
  • Threw out a child’s birth certificate and threatened him with sexual abuse by an adult male detainee
  • Worked to deport children without due process and via coercion

These horrifying details come from the U.S. government’s own documentation of violence, abuse and neglect against migrant children from 2009 – 2014, according to an analysis by the University of Chicago Law School International Human Rights Clinic with the ACLU.

What’s not in these 30,000 government pages is equally despicable: There is no evidence that this child abuse has been meaningfully investigated, perpetrators held responsible or substantive protections put in place to stop the abuse for recurring.

Reading the report, I can’t get the photos of the scandal at Abu Ghraib out of my mind. You know the ones taken inside the U.S. Army detention facility outside of Baghdad where Army and CIA staff illegally tortured Iraqi detainees, physically, mentally and sexually. Many had been captured because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and were found innocent of any crimes.

An image of a prisoner, Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, being tortured by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003-2004. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Several scholars have stated that the abuses at Abu Ghraib constituted state-sanctioned crimes. I think we need to start asking the same question about how we are treating immigrant children fleeing violence in their home countries. These children seek asylum and safety here, only to be greeted with physical, sexual and verbal abuse, and denied clean drinking water, adequate food, and medical care inside freezing and unsanitary facilities, according to these reports.

Where is the accountability and deterrence? Abu Ghraib resulted in the court martial and dishonorable discharge of  American soldiers. Some even served sentences in military prison.

No CBP officials have been held accountable. CBP denies every allegation, noting an Inspector General’s subsequent report did not observe child abuse taking place. CBP also notes that its sister organization, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has been subcontracted to do compliance audits of CBP detainment facilities.

Tragically, the situation for women, children and families is getting worse as evidenced by a flurry of recent policy changes.

This week, a new Justice Department policy denies asylum to women and children escaping violence. A policy announced in May has mandated separating parents from children at the border, resulting in 658 minor children forcibly separated from 638 parents and detained in shelters and foster care in just 13 days. The federal government, which does not have adequate systems and funding to track children, lost track of nearly 1500 of the 7600 kids it detained in 2017.

In just the last few months, this administration also reversed policy to begin routinely detaining pregnant women and putting their pregnancies at risk. A longstanding family reunification visa program is being mischaracterized as chain migration,” refugees escaping danger are being refused entry, and Temporary Protected Status, TPS, is being dismantled.

TPS allows people already in the U.S. to remain here when natural disasters, conflicts or other emergency conditions strike their home country and it’s unsafe to return. Ten countries had TPS at the start of the Trump administration. Now just four countries remain, and soon it may be two as TPS for Yemen and Somalia comes under review in July.

These new policies fly in the face of American family values and basic moral standards agreed upon by our faith traditions. They make political prisoners of women and children as our government dismantles immigration programs meant to reunify, protect or provide refuge to families. It’s sick and it’s ugly, plain and simple.

This strategy may be useful for stoking fear in Trump’s political base, but government propaganda that dehumanizes immigrants as “animals” permits an ongoing culture of abuse with impunity.

Don’t get me wrong. No administration, past or present, has clean hands here. But with documentation of alleged crimes against children now coming to light, the current administration must fully address these chilling reports, bring perpetrators to justice, prevent further abuse and discontinue this ugly scheme of family separation. Anything less is a grotesque loss of our nation’s morality and provides evidence that systemic child abuse by a federal agency has become a state-sanctioned crime.

Because CBS News obtained those horrifying Abu Ghraib photos, that abuse garnered the condemnation it deserved. We have no photos of children being molested, punched, kicked and stunned by U.S. government employees. But we do have clear documentation that we ignore or minimize to our moral peril.

We like to say, “We’re better than this.” Time will tell. But for now: Shame on us.

Shame on U.S.

Brian D. McLaren is a best-selling author, speaker, activist and networker among innovative faith leaders. A former pastor, he has written fifteen books, including The Great Spiritual Migration. He is an Auburn Senior Fellow, living in Florida. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.


  1. United States senators are being denied entry into migrant detention facilities in their attempt to find out what’s going on inside them. Sen. Jeff Merkley finally gained entry into one in Brownsville, TX and said that the images there are now seared into his brain, with people being herded like cattle, children separated from their parents, like slaves at auction. Sen. Merkley reported that while touring the facility he was required to lock his phone away before entering so there could be no video record. Something bad is happening on the border and our government, as with Abu Ghraib, doesn’t want us to know about it, which is why they’re trying to keep it hidden. Cockroaches always hate the light.

  2. A statement by HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan:

    “These children are not ‘lost;’ their sponsors—who are usually parents or family members and in all cases have been vetted for criminality and ability to provide for them—simply did not respond or could not be reached when this voluntary call was made. While there are many possible reasons for this, in many cases sponsors cannot be reached because they themselves are illegal aliens and do not want to be reached by federal authorities. This is the core of this issue: In many cases, HHS has been put in the position of placing illegal aliens with the individuals who helped arrange for them to enter the country illegally. This makes the immediate crisis worse and creates a perverse incentive for further violation of federal immigration law.”

    So we have four choices: put the children in jail along with their parents (requires a change to federal law), separate them from their parents and place them with sponsors (perhaps another amendment to the law, that they can only be placed with legal residents?), release the families to disappear into the general population until ICE can catch up with them again, or prevent them from entering the country in the first place.

  3. “in many cases sponsors cannot be reached because they themselves are
    illegal aliens and do not want to be reached by federal authorities”

    So Mr. Hargan tries to explain away systematic incompetence by lying.

    Two claims are contradictory garbage: “in all cases have been vetted for criminality and ability to provide for them” then claims: “sponsors cannot be reached because they themselves are illegal aliens”.

    If they were vetted, then how is the government handing the children to illegal aliens? Somehow these sponsors are undocumented immigrants are voluntarily subjecting themselves to federal background checks, fingerprinting and agreeing to coordinate with ICE, but then, once all that is taken care of, are afraid of answering the telephone. Hmm. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense there.

    As usual a functionary of the Trump administration is both dishonest and incompetent. Possibly even covering up criminal activities as well. Of course the issue of systematic abuse of children in the immigration detention system goes completely unremarked here. Because the last thing nativist types want is oversight of our immigration enforcement bodies.

  4. Since the parents are headed to incarceration, required by the law, and children cannot accompany adults into incarceration, also required by the law, how do you suppose this should be handled?

    The way the Obama Administration handled it was to do nothing.

    That delivered a loud clear message to people south of the border all the way down that the US immigration law was a paper tiger.

    Btw, the last thing you lefties wanted under the Obama Administration was oversight of our immigration enforcement bodies because they were looking the other way because the Chief Executive told them to.

    In short, he was author of lawlessness.

  5. Illegal aliens are not immigrants. The only people to blame are the parents who chose to risk their child’s life to break another countries laws.

  6. Obama made those facilities, when we request more money, those senators vote against it.

  7. He does not believe in personal responsibility. Every day on America parents are jailed for crimes they have committed, and they were subsequently separated from their children.

  8. Do children have a right to privacy, they are minors after all?

  9. Indeed.

    I was listening to an ACLU lawyer today on NPR describing the trauma of separating children from parents.

    80% or so of the citizens in prison in this country have children who have been separated from their parents.

  10. Trump is turning them into a gulag for children. Intentionally separating them from parents in a way unheard of in the past.

    Who is “we” here?

    “Those senators” being the Republicans who think fiscal responsibility means creating inhumane conditions for those they don’t care about.

  11. People in custody of the US government have rights which include not being subject to abuse and torture under their watch.

    Illegal immigration is not a capital crime. The main purpose for separating children from parents has to do with denial of access to due process. Immigration violators are not entitled to an attorney. Children without parental support or presence are easier to put through the system.

  12. Responsibility from a conservative is for other people, never one’s self. It is a mantra for deliberate and malicious indifference to others.

    “Every day on America parents are jailed for crimes they have committed, and they were subsequently separated from their children.”

    What a crappy analogy.

    Children could never be charged for crimes committed by their parents or without their volition. But in immigration law they are subject to being detained and punished. Whereas a child cannot be charged with a crime for being too young, that does not exist for immigration violation. These are not children put into foster care until parents are released from prison. These are children who are scheduled to be punished by the system themselves.

    You support abuse of children in government custody. Making you lower than dirt.

  13. One point not mentioned is that some are seeking asylum and the US has an obligation under international law to not incarcerate asylum seekers. Doesn’t happen in most other developed countries. The other thought that popped into my head is the US predilection for incarcerating people anyways. And sometimes as someone famous once said, the law is an ass!

    I really liked the Trump mural detail https://twitter.com/jacobsoboroff/status/1007019318293553153

  14. This is what America’s white evangelicals wanted. They hate and fear brown people, and they want them to suffer to make themselves feel safe and righteous.

  15. Has the Dump Administration no heart, no compassion, no kindness, no decency? You know the answer, it is NO.

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