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How To Help Migrant Children Caught In The Detention Center Crisis

'This is a long fight, and it’s going to require a lot of attention and a lot of input from people'

In April 2018, the New York Times reported that the Trump Administration had for months been separating migrant families arriving at or crossing the U.S. border without documentation. Many were legally seeking asylum from Central American countries like Guatemala and Honduras, where violence has threatened the lives of millions of people. Children were removed from their families, sometimes for months and potentially years because the administration did not prepare to reunite them. And while Trump reversed the family-separation aspect of his so-called “zero tolerance” policy in June of last year, new reports from detention facilities at the U.S./Mexico border revealed that the practice was still ongoing — to catastrophic results. A June 22, 2019 report from the Houston Chronicle found that the Trump administration separated at least 700 children from their families in the year that came after the President reversed the family-separation policy in June 2018.

To be clear, detention facilities are not a Trump administration invention; they have existed for years. In 2014, during the Obama administration, an 11-year-old named Mayeli Hernández told journalist Aura Bogado what it was like being detained inside one of the hieleras — one of the facilities nicknamed ice boxes by both the guards and the detainees because of the freezing temperatures; her experience was not unlike what hundreds of children are facing now. Hernández and her sister had crossed the border as unaccompanied minors; both children like them and those who have been separated from their families by the Trump administration  have been held in horrific conditions, yet recent reports from Vice, the Associated Press, the New Yorker, and the New York Times have finally made those conditions public to a widespread audience. All of the stories detail the ways in which children are kept in overcrowded facilities; in conditions that keep them from sleeping; without the ability to brush their teeth, shower, or access clean clothes or diapers; and are often forced to look after one another. Some of them have been there for weeks.

“I need comfort, too,” a 14-year-old, who had been tasked by the guards with looking after toddlers, told the AP in a story published June 21. “I am bigger than they are, but I am a child, too.”

Since the reports came out, the administration has reportedly begun moving children between facilities, but it’s unclear when they will be released, or even reunited with their families. At least seven children who were in or were recently released from government custody have died, and experts warn that more are at risk of similar fates.

All of this has lead to a new wave of outrage by people looking for a way to help. Here’s how you can get involved:

Donate.

If you have the means, you can donate to any one of the organizations helping to sound the alarm, and also directly help the children being held in the detention centers. Many people have sounded the call to donate to RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services in Texas. The group has seen an influx of support in the past year, but their work isn’t over — and they’re not alone. You can also donate to groups like Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, and the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. You can find other groups doing the work at the Texas/Mexico border here; the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has also compiled a list of organizations to support.

According to the Texas Tribune, people who are showing up to detention facilities with supplies like diapers and toothbrushes are often being turned away. Other groups that are actually dedicated to helping migrant people, like Casa Alitas in Tucson, Arizona, do accept donations of goods; call the organization before you show up, and ask what supplies they need most. You can find organizations near you here.

Get involved in your community.

“One really important thing is for people to know what is in your community, know who is doing the work there, and plug in and ask them what you can do,” Zenén Jaimes Pérez, the advocacy director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, tells MTV News. “I can guarantee you they will give you work if you want to do it.”  He recommends searching for immigrant-serving organizations and legal clinics in your area, many of whom will be planning events, protests, or outreach that you can get involved with.

As the Cut reports, many organizations especially welcome work from volunteers who have legal backgrounds and can speak Spanish. Some groups, like Kids in Need of Defense, will train people who are looking to help. While the Trump administration is trying to prosecute volunteers who leave supplies like water and clothing in the desert for migrants in need, groups like the Border Angels are undeterred from the scare tactics.

You can also search for Know Your Rights trainings being held in your area, to better inform yourself on how to practice safe bystander intervention, or share the information with people you know who may need it. According to the ACLU, nearly two-thirds of the American population lives within 100 miles of a US border, which is where agencies like Customs and Border Protection can stop or search people — and the more everyone knows about the rights granted to their neighbors, the better.

Spread information.

Compounding fears last week were reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement were set to begin raids in major U.S. cities as early as Saturday, June 22; according to reports, President Donald Trump called the raids off before they began. Still, the experience has understandably made many immigrants all the more scared to leave their homes. Many people have begun sharing checklists and Know Your Rights information on social media.

According to Pérez, this kind of signal boosting is deeply important, even if some people who need it aren’t on social media themselves. “Even if you do not fall into a directly affected category, if you’re able to speak about the issue, if you know a little bit more about what is happening, that helps in a broader goal of people understanding the opaqueness of the immigration system,” he says. He also recommends writing organizational information down so that you have it if you’re asked by someone in need of free legal advice or a similar issue.

Hold your lawmakers accountable.

You can check sites like 5 Calls, which will give you contact information for your senators and congresspeople, as well as an easy-to-follow script. The ACLU also provides its own script if you’d like to lobby your representatives not to give more money to the Department of Homeland Security.

Sharing your outrage on social media can also help. Lawmakers may not be obligated to listen to tweets, but public outrage and protest is powerful; if you are not physically able to attend a protest, signal-boosting information online and holding people accountable can make a huge difference.

Remember the humanity of the people subjected to these conditions. 

It’s also crucial to remember that words matter — and can either weaponize or humanize the actions of people who have often been put in impossible situations.

Many groups are calling for people to stop using the term “illegal immigrant,” which immediately vilifies people who cross the border without prior documentation. Sometimes, that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do: Undocumented migrants seeking asylum can only do so once inside the country’s borders, and it is entirely within their legal rights to do so.

“The system is set up to dehumanize folks,” Pérez points out. “That is why people are given A-numbers, where your alien [registration number] is your identification when you are in the system. For us it is really important you put names and stories to those A-numbers, or else people would just be ground up in the machine. Part of our humanity is that we need to make sure we are preventing that, and making sure we are telling the stories of people so that we can fight for them.”

Vote.

Your ballot may not include any measures that explicitly refer to the border crisis, but the people you put in office can impact legislation and future mobilization. Check your voter registration status, and find out when your next local election is set to take place.

It’s also crucial to vet candidates and hold them accountable to providing actionable and comprehensive plans regarding immigration reform and rehabilitation for the people affected in this crisis. You can view plans and proposals by presidential candidates here.

“This is a long fight, and it’s going to require a lot of attention and a lot of input from people,” Pérez says. “It is not an easy fix and it is going to take all of us to understand and know what kind of values we really want to live in. The more light we can shed, the more beneficial it will be for future efforts.”