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After a year of regular death threats from gangs in his native El Salvador, 13-year-old Diego* fled to the United States to escape violence, seek protection, and reunify with his parents. His month-long journey was tumultuous, and when he reached the U.S.-Mexico border he finally felt a sense of hope and safety. That hope was shattered when an immigration officer grabbed him by the neck of his shirt and pulled him to his feet. The officer’s German Shepherd lunged at Diego and when it scratched him across the face, the officer laughed. Diego was held in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody for four days and while there, the gashes on his face went untreated. During his transfer from CBP to the government-run shelter where he would be detained until he could be released to a family member, 13-year-old Diego was three-point shackled; his wrists, waist, and ankles all connected by heavy chains. The cuffs were tight and painful, leaving long-lasting red marks on his body.

At any given time, there are more than 500 unaccompanied immigrant children like Diego held in Chicago-area shelters. Immigrant children are deemed unaccompanied if they do not have a parent or legal guardian with them when they enter the United States. Immigrant children are treated differently than immigrant adults and CBP is required to transfer unaccompanied children into shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) after they are apprehended at the border. The majority of unaccompanied children come from Central America. Based on recent reports, as well as our interviews with the children, we know that most of these children come to the United States to escape severe violence and poverty in their home countries. Some hope to reunify with family members who are already here. Their journey to the United States is extremely dangerous, but most make the journey anyways because remaining in their home country is even more dangerous. No matter who they are, where they come from, or why they’re coming, they are children. And they should be treated with care and compassion. Instead, too often they flee violence and abuse in their home countries only to encounter abusers who act with impunity while they are detained by CBP.

Every week, NIJC provides legal consultations to the unaccompanied children held in ORR shelters in Chicago and hears their stories of mistreatment by CPB. Children—teenagers and babies alike—are held in small, crowded cells. Referred to as “hieleras” or freezers by the children, these spaces are kept at uncomfortably cold temperatures. The lights are on throughout the night, and children struggle to sleep on the concrete floors without blankets. The children complain of hunger and thirst because many are given only a small sandwich and a cup of juice twice each day. When they make simple requests, such as for a drink of water, the location of a sibling, or a clean diaper for an infant, they are harshly reprimanded. One child told us that she was helping care for a four-year-old girl who had been separated from her brother. When the four-year-old cried because she was hungry and asked for more food, the CBP officer told her to suck her thumb. CBP officers routinely yell, swear, and hurl insults at the children. Several children said that CBP officers told them they hoped the children’s planes would crash on their way from the border to Chicago. Reports of physical abuse and shackling are common.

Today, NIJC—along with the ACLU Border Litigation Project, Americans for Immigrant Justice, Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, and the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project—filed a mass complaint against the Department of Homeland Security and CBP on behalf of these children because the system at the border needs to change. When children are apprehended by CBP after treacherous journeys to the border, they are lost, afraid, and alone. No one should be subjected to threats and physical harm while in the custody of a government agency. And immigrant children are particularly vulnerable and in need of special protection. CBP detention conditions need to be set at a standard that makes children feel safe and secure, and above all, recognizes that unaccompanied immigrant children are children first and immigrants second.

Elana Gordon is a paralegal with NIJC’s Immigrant Children’s Protection Project and an Avodah Corp Member.
Kathleen O’Donovan is a paralegal with NIJC’s Immigrant Children’s Protection Project.