“We have to look. If we stop looking, they will win.” An interview with Dr. Cheasty Anderson of Children’s Defense Fund-Texas

July 17, 2019 | National

Dr. Cheasty Anderson is Senior Policy Associate with Children’s Defense Fund-Texas. Over the past several months, she has been helping lead CDF-TX’s efforts to organize and take action on behalf of migrant children and families. Earlier this month, she spoke at a rally organized by CDF-TX to protest a new detention center for children in Carrizo Springs, TX.

Why is the government holding so many children and families in detention centers?

When people come to this country seeking asylum, they need a place to land temporarily while they are processed and can get community sponsors. There is a legal process in place to investigate their claim. If it’s credible, they get a hearing in front of a judge to plead their case to stay in the United States.

There is no reason for these people to be incarcerated. Instead, families and children are being kept in high-security, prison-like environments. They aren’t allowed to leave, no one can come in and visit. They are incarcerated, and it can’t be said often enough, seeking asylum is legal. We should return to what we have historically done, how we have historically processed asylum seekers, which is to release them to families or community-based sponsors after initial processing. When they have representation, or even just a community organization that is helping them stay on top of their transportation to get to the hearing, you have close to a 99% attendance rate at those court hearings.

What are the impacts these policies of family separation and detention are having on children?

The impacts that people have been seeing in these children are all the different manifestations of trauma. They are fearful, they are regressing from age-appropriate development, sometimes losing years of progress. They refuse to speak, become depressed, and have increased anxiety. Dr. Luis Zayas at the UT School of Social Work did a report on families where the children were being incarcerated with their parents. He found suicidal ideations in children younger than 10. That report is just about family detention, so it doesn’t even touch on the impacts on children separated from their parents.

Why are there so many of these children being held in detention when their families are legally seeking asylum?

The administration has put in place a policy requiring people to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed. People are waiting for months, and they run out of money and then are targeted by criminal operations in Mexico. It’s incredibly dangerous, so many decide to take their chances by crossing the river. Once they do that, they are prosecuted for a criminal offense, which means families are separated and children are imprisoned away from their parents. That is, in part, why there are so many children kept in border patrol stations, and then transferred to detention centers.

How long are these children held in the detention centers?

According to the Flores settlement, the government is allowed to keep children for 72 hours in a border patrol processing center and only 20 days in a detention center. This administration is vastly overstepping that limit, keeping children for 30 days, even 60 days. The New York Times reported in June that at the Homestead facility in Florida, one child had been there for 122 days.

Can you tell me about Carrizo Springs – what is it, and why did CDF-TX decide to hold a protest there last week?

Carrizo Springs is the newest detention center being opened to house children separated from their families. We decided to protest because there is so much going on, so many atrocities happening that the government can open a new children’s prison in Texas and it goes unnoticed. That’s not okay. We have to pay attention, we have to bear witness. We have to look. If we stop looking, they will win. Every single day, this administration is hurting children and traumatizing children. So every single day, we have to keep looking and keep protesting. We can’t allow this to become the new normal.

The bottom line is that keeping children imprisoned is unnecessary. It is wrong. What we need to remember is that these are children coming here with their families or to join their families because they want to be here, they are seeking safety and security and freedom in the U.S. It’s also important to remember that if families are in detention facilities, it’s because they have passed a credibility interview and are awaiting a decision from a judge. It’s likely that most children who are in the jails are going to end up being able to stay in the U.S. as asylum seekers because they have a legitimate, credible claim that is approved by our justice department. These people are going to be Americans. They are going to live in our communities. And their very first taste of life in America has been trauma, neglect, abuse, horrifying conditions under border patrol care, a terror of our law enforcement communities, and the negative impacts that happen in child development when exposed to high degrees of trauma.

What can people do if they want to get involved and want to take action to help these children and their families?

What we have seen at the border facilities is clearly a human rights violation. The images we’ve seen are so viscerally shocking, that it has easily registered for people that it’s wrong, and it’s wrong on an order of magnitude that is hard to wrap our heads around. As outraged citizens in a democracy, we have four tools at our disposal. We can donate, we can vote, we can volunteer, and we can organize and educate. Those concerned about this crisis should donate to the organizations on the ground trying to alleviate the pain and suffering that these families are going through. Do your research on your political candidates and where they stand on this issue. Putting people into office who will approach immigration differently is the only thing that is going to change the policies that the Trump administration has put into place. Call your member of Congress and put pressure on them to continue holding hearings and asking the hard questions. Congress should make it as hard as possible for the administration to hide what they’re doing. You can also volunteer. Look up refugee support services in your city, donate some blankets, donate a bed, volunteer to drive someone to their court hearing. Be persistent, show up, and be there for these families.