By Benay Blend
Referring to the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic, a federal judge in Los Angeles on June 26, 2020, ordered the release of migrant children detained in the country’s three family detention centers. Some have been held since last year.
The mandate refers to children who have been held for more than 20 days in centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania. According to the ruling, 124 children were living in those places since June 8, and some of them have tested positive for the virus. This number is separate from the US Department of Health and Human Services centers for unaccompanied children that contained around 1,000 children in early June.
In her order, Judge Dolly M. Gee of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California denounced the Trump administration for ignoring recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To stall the spread of the virus in detention facilities, the agency had endorsed social distancing, the wearing of masks, and treatment for those who tested positive.
“The family residential centers are on fire,” she wrote, adding that this is no time for “half measures.”
Because of the pandemic, Judge Gee wrote, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should work with “all deliberate speed” to release the children either together with their parents or sent to family sponsors.
“Some detained parents facing deportation brought their children to this country to save them from rampant violence in their home countries,” said Peter Schey, counsel for the class of detained children, “and would prefer to see their child released to relatives here rather than being deported with the parent to countries where children are routinely kidnapped, beaten and killed.”
Amy Maldonado, an attorney who works with detained families, said Gee “clearly recognized that the government is not willing to protect the health and safety of the children, which is their obligation.”
“They need to make the sensible choice and release the parents to care for their children,” she said of the government. Under terms of the Flores Settlement, the government can be forced into releasing children but not their parents, so that family separation occurs again unless the immigration rights group demands the release of entire families from detention.
More than 2,500 people in ICE holdings have tested positive for COVID-19. Although approximately 900 people considered at medical risk have been released, ICE refused to discharge more because it deems most of the family detainees to be “flight risks” because they are set to either be deported or appear in court.
Family separation has a long history in the United States beginning with children taken from their parents during slavery in the American South. As Shaun King observes, while children locked in cages is surely an “abomination,” it is also as deeply entrenched in American culture as “Facebook and Disneyland” seem to be.
During the 250 years of slavery in the American South millions of African family members were separated from each other. Ripped from their homelands, sold at auction blocks across the South, African parents, children, brothers and sisters would do their best to reunite after the Civil War.
Not only were enslaved African children sold away from their families, claims King, but Native American children, too, were forcibly sent to boarding schools where they suffered under harsh discipline and corporal punishment. In Our History is the Future (2019), historian Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) writes that “the system…was as much about taking the children hostage as it was using them as leverage to coerce the behavior of reservation leadership,” (p. 118) and this continued until the 1970s.
Finally, in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness (2010), Michelle Alexander traces the “rebirth of a caste-like system” that relegates millions of African American prisoners to a “permanent second-class status” by robbing them of their rights won in the 1960s. By focusing on the War on Drugs, Alexander shows that the U.S. criminal justice system is little more than a “contemporary system of racial control” that targets black men for petty crimes and consequently decimates communities.
Given these examples, it’s clear that “this nation has mastered separating parents and children,” as King asserts, but in fact, it is guilty of so much more. As he explains: “What’s happening right now in our country is, without question, a human rights catastrophe.” Yet, when others respond with statements like: “This is not the American I know and love,” his immediate reply is: It is.
It is also the same America that funds and supports the detention of Palestinian children in Israeli military jails. As reported by the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Israel detains and prosecutes between 500 and 700 Palestinian children in military courts per year.
Not only do such courts lack due process guarantees, they have a conviction rate of 99.74 percent. During their time in the penal system, these children are subjected to various kinds of physical and emotional abuse when neither their parents nor their lawyers are there to protect them.
According to Samidoun: Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, conditions inside Israeli jails are particularly deadly now due to systemic medical neglect in the face of the coronavirus. If this motivated the release of children from detention in America, surely Palestinian prisoners, especially the youth, deserve the same consideration.
On May 1, 2019, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) reintroduced legislation in Congress that would prohibit US tax dollars from funding the Israeli military detention of Palestinian children. H.R. 2407, Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Military Occupation Act, is the follow-up to H.R. 4391, in the last Congress, which totaled 31 sponsors.
“By introducing H.R. 2407,” writes Ramzy Baroud,
“McCollum has broken several major taboos in the US government. She unapologetically characterizes Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights with all the correct terms – ‘torture’, ‘abuse’, and so on… Moreover, she calls for conditioning US military support for Israel on the latter’s respect for human rights.”
The time is ripe. The Palestinian rights movement, writes Alex Kane, has helped push Democratic public opinion away from unqualified support for Israel. Jamaal Bowman’s declared victory over Rep. Engel this past week shows this to be the case.
Rep. McCollum agrees:
“I strongly believe there is a growing consensus among the American people that the Palestinian people deserve justice, equality, human rights, and the right to self-determination. It is time to stand with Palestinians, Americans, Israelis, and people around the world to reject the destructive, dehumanizing, and anti-peace policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump.”
Neither Bowman’s campaign nor McCollum’s stance represent a forum for challenging the foundation of the US-Israel relationship, but these steps do question Israel’s regard for human rights. As Justine Teba (Tesuque and Santa Clara Pueblo) notes, it took a movement to free the children. It happened “because of ongoing protests at ICE detentions centers, these movements aren’t being talked about in mainstream media because they’re are undeniable PROOF of movement power and PROOF that this is how we get things done in an unjust system. I see the see first-hand accounts of these actions online. Do you think the state just decided on a whim to let their child prisoners free?”
In These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggles and Defiance in Israeli Prisons (2020), Ramzy Baroud records a total of 5,250 political prisoners in Israel, a number he predicts will be growing because Palestinians will continue to resist.
Expect an increase, too, because on July 1, various Palestinian factions and support groups have called for a Day of Rage to protest the annexation of all illegal settlements in the West Bank and large swaths of the Jordan Valley, consuming the remaining areas under Palestinian control. Here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Red Nation has called for a car parade ending with a rally at Tiquex Park.
If justice is truly indivisible, in the words of Martin Luther King, then all prisoners—in America and Occupied Palestine–deserve the same demands to ensure their release from COVID-infested prisons.
– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.