Recent reports emerging from detention facilities on the Southern border detail shocking health and hygiene conditions under which children and their families are being held. These dangerous conditions were revealed by a team of lawyers, accompanied by doctors and activists, after visiting a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, while journalists remain barred from entering any of the facilities.
The expert team reported dangerously unsanitary conditions at a Texas facility after witnessing toddlers wearing urine-soaked and mucus-smeared clothes and children who had gone weeks with no toothbrushes, soap, or showers. At nighttime, children were seen sleeping on concrete floors under glaring lights.
The lawyers were permitted to inspect the facilities by virtue of belonging to a group of immigration activists that was responsible for the 1997 Flores settlement, a Clinton-era legal agreement that set standards for the detention conditions for migrant children and families. The lawyers gained access to the facilities despite the Trump administration’s repeated efforts to nullify the Flores settlement.
While the lawyers were able to gain access to detention centers, journalists remain in the dark, according to the Washington Post’s report. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the report says, maintains a total blackout policy regarding the detention camps by preventing journalists from visiting the facilities and speaking to migrant children. “If journalists had access to the detention centers at the border where children are being held in filthy conditions, those centers would not exist,” said Elora Mukherjee, one of the members of the lawyers’s team, in an interview with The Washington Post, adding that “If videos were released, there would be massive changes.”
In a statement released on Monday, Nora Benavidez, PEN America’s Director of U.S. Free Expression Programs, said, “It is shocking that the American public largely must learn about the dangerous conditions at these detention centers not through reporters being able to cover the news, but through second-hand reports from lawyers and advocates granted access under a legal agreement with the U.S. border patrol.”
She continued, “The fact that journalists are being sealed off and held behind a wall of secrecy, unable to show the American people the faces and voices of those who are suffering in squalor is one more unconscionable aspect to this epic horror story on the southern border.”
Cutting the press off from this story to hide what is going on is unacceptable and unwarranted; professional journalists are well-equipped to handle issues of privacy and consent, and this should pose no barrier to press access. The American public has a right to see for themselves what is happening in these camps through first-hand accounts, images and video documented by professional journalists. Indeed, the fact that every story that does make it to a reporter galvanizes public attention and action demonstrates the importance of that reporting.
This past May, PEN America joined a coalition of organizations in signing an open letter calling on the US government to end the “surveillance and targeting of activists, journalists, and lawyers by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).” Earlier this year, the organization released a petition against the alleged surveillance and monitoring of journalists at the border. The petition has so far been signed by more than 58,000 people.
Earlier in June, The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) in Texas collaborated with the advertising agency Badger & Winters on a political pop-up installation project in New York City titled #NoKidsInCages. The project featured realistic child-like mannequins curled up in foil blankets inside chain link cages. The installations included audio recordings of detained migrant children crying. “This is not history. This is happening now,” RAICES wrote on Twitter, “#NoKidsInCages is about the children. We cannot be a nation that separates families.”
“PEN America calls on the Trump administration to open the camps to the scrutiny of the press — and thus, the American people — immediately, and end this effort to keep what is happening in the detention centers a secret,” Benavidez concluded.