President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy separated thousands of children from their families, some of them less than five years of age.
These children living in detention centers without their parents, was hard enough; however, reports show they follow a strict routine, which ultimately asks them to stop acting like who they are — like kids.
These children are not allowed to run or touch each other. They wake up to the loud banging by agents who keep going till children are out of bed at the crack of dawn. They get no reassuring hugs when they feel sad; they sit alone and curl up in their own embrace. Crying is “discouraged.” They attend classes, teaching them about American history and presidents, including the one whose immigration policies landed them in the detention centers in the first place. They make their beds and scrub the toilet floors. There are no exceptions, everyone has to follow the rules or they get punished.
“You had to get in line for everything,” Leticia, a 12-year-old girl from Guatemala, recalled. She wanted to give her 10-year-old younger brother, Walter, a hug, saying everything will be okay but they weren’t allowed to do so.
Trump conceded to a nation-wide outcry over his inhumane policy that separated migrant families. However, the U.S. government is still struggling reuniting thousands of children still in custody, who were sometimes flown to different states than their parents, who were held back for prosecution. Many of these children are also “unaccompanied minors” who crossed the border alone or without any adult.
Sometimes planned, but mostly coincidently, these children are sent to huge youth shelters and other times to converted motels, with covered swimming pools. No matter the size of the detention facility, the basic rules remain the same.
Waking up at the first ray of sunlight and lights-out by nine; the various chores assigned throughout the day and the compulsory classes in American education. Another aspect that remains the same in these shelters: the uncertainty of when and if these children will ever see their families.
Children, including Leticia, wrote letters to their parents, quickly, hiding from the detention workers, so not to break another rule.
Leticia wrote them just after she finished her math homework; she was not allowed to write in her dorm room. She has kept the letters safe, to show it to her mother, when she finally meets her again, how much she missed her while they were apart.
She is yet to meet her mother.
Another child wrote in the letter, “Mommy, I love you and adore you and miss you so much. Please, Mom, communicate. Please, Mom. I hope that you’re OK and remember, you are the best thing in my life.”
Diego Magalhães did not cry when he was separated from his mother because he had promised he wouldn’t. The 10-year-old was proud of his feat. He kept his promise.
He was flown to Chicago where he shared a room with two other Brazilian boys, both almost the same age. Even in Chicago, the day in the life of a detained migrant child was pretty much the same.
“You had to clean the bathroom,” Diego said. “I scrubbed the bathroom. We had to remove the trash bag full of dirty toilet paper. Everyone had to do it.”
Diego earned himself the titled of “big brother” because he always behaved. He knew he had to look out for one of the workers, “who was not a good guy.” He said he would inject another boy from Guatemala, who would throw around things, so that he would sleep.
“They applied injections because he was very agitated,” Diego said. “He would destroy things.”
When Diego finally left the facility, he could not hug his friends goodbye.
Fifteen-year-old Yoselyn Bulux was transferred to a facility in Texas while her mother stayed back in Arizona.
The over-300-girls in this facility were given clothes and a piece of paper with a number on it. Some these girls were pregnant but they had to follow rules.
“If you do something bad, they report you,” Yoselyn recalled. “And you have to stay longer.”
During exercise drills in the unfathomable Texas heat, at times, someone would dart towards the fence but no one ever made it.
The girls talked about getting out and getting deported. The gossip was ever-present and confusing. When Yoselyn finally met her father on July 1, he was so overwhelmed he could not speak.
Victor Monroy spent his 11th birthday in a detention center. No one knew it was his big day, no one sang songs for him. When he finally told a detention center worker, where he and his sister, Leidy, were being held, all he got was “happy birthday.” His day ended eventless.
“They said ‘feliz cumpleaños,’” the boy recalled. “That’s all.”
Victor and Leidy were flown to Chicago, where they were sent to separate boys and girls areas. They could only see each other during recreational time, for up to half an hour, if they asked.
After another child stole Victor’s ball one day, he refused to go inside after playtime was over. The workers, two of them, dragged him inside.
“I told him he didn’t have the right to do that,” the boy said. “And so he said, yes, he had the right to do whatever he wanted.”
Despite the agitation and the separation from their families, the kids would sometimes act their age. Someone would start mooing after lights out and then the whole facility would echo with cattle-like sounds. The workers would sometimes start laughing too.
“Someone will start mooing,” said an employee at Casa Padre, a shelter for 1,500 migrant boys that inhabits a former Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville, Texas “They just think it’s funny. They just do it long enough so everyone can hear, and then we all start laughing.”
The kids would pray, some would kneel while others would just hold their hands together, hoping to see their families again. They would make each other bracelet from yarn balls, as keepsakes and mementos.
All this would be done before lights out, as they prepare to wake up the next day at dawn, unknown whether this would be the day they see their parents again.
Thumbnail/ Banner Credits: REUTERS/Loren Elliott