Today, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus held an ad hoc hearing on Capitol Hill entitled “Kids First: Examining the Southern Border Humanitarian Crisis.” The members of Congress listened to testimony from children who had fled violence and experts who had worked with them, and one Congresswoman expressed her astonishment that this was the first time she and many of her colleagues had heard such stories in person, rather than by proxy or via the news.
The stories from the children were each heartbreaking. Dulce, 15, fled from Guatemala to escape a man who was pursuing herself and her sister. Myelli, 12, left Honduras when armed men tried to kidnap her and her two siblings. Saul, 15, escaped from El Salvador after he witnessed a homicide in front of his house, and after MS-13 gang members threatened to kill him for riding his bike through their territory. Refugio escaped with his sister, but Zetas members took her when the two couldn’t pay all the bribes required to get to the US.
Once they got to the US, however, even worse circumstances in some cases awaited them. The children testified that they were kept in freezing cold police stations and detention centers with only a nylon blanket for warmth and not enough food to eat. Children who misbehaved were handcuffed away from the rest, which meant that they could not huddle for body warmth. In Saul’s case, 200 children were kept in one center with only one bathroom, and nothing in the way of privacy. They could not properly sleep because the lights were kept on 24 hours a day, and the guards came in every two hours to count the children.
“The whole time I was there, children were crying,” Saul testified, saying that after six days in detainment he felt very weak. “My time in the iceboxes was the worst experience of my life.”
At one point, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) asked why holding centers for children are consistently kept so cold. Advocates told her that a similar tactic is used in prisons to keep the population “subdued.” In response to the children’s testimony of how they were treated in the US, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said, “I feel ashamed. Is this America?”
Overall, the children testifying thanked the members of Congress for allowing children to come into the country, expressed firm desires to not be sent back, and talked about the happiness they felt in being safe and reunited with their families (Myelli: “I love to go to school. I have the best grades in my class”). They also implored the Congressmembers to continue allowing in children who come to the US seeking refuge — and to treat them better once they’re here. Said Saul: “I ask your government not to treat children as badly as you have treated me.”