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Jeffrey S. Chase, Sept. 22, 2019
"“I’m held with my son in a cage. There are about 60 people in my cages, and more in some of the other cages. There are six cages in my area. They are all very, very full.”
The above words are part of “Exhibit 29,” which is read by my friend Lenni Benson, a professor at New York Law School and founder of the school’s Safe Passage Project, which provides representation to unaccompanied children in immigration court. The words are the sworn declaration of a 17-year-old girl, identified by the initial “L.”
There are 65 such declarations, each the actual statement of a child detained at border detention facilities in this country in June 2019. Recently, Waterwell, the wonderful civic-minded theater and film production company responsible for the immigration court based play The Courtroom filmed a number of actors, lawyers, clinical professors, advocates, and other interested individuals in a dark studio in the East Village in New York City. I was honored to be one of those filmed. We each sat at a simple table with the written exhibit and a glass of water, and under the direction of Waterwell’s Artistic Director, Lee Sunday Evans, each read a single declaration.
Article 37(b) of the Convention of the Rights of the Child states that “No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.” A 1997 settlement agreement, known as the Flores Settlement, legally binds our government in limiting the length of time it can detain immigrant children, and holding the government to a standard of humane treatment under prescribed conditions of health, hygiene, education, and privacy. From the contents of the declarations, the Trump Administration has made a mockery of these rules.
Exhibit 3, read by David Gomez, the president of Hostos Community College, memorializes the words of a five year old from Honduras separated from his father upon arrival at the border, as he states “I have not been told how long I have to stay here. I am frightened, scared, and sad.” My fellow former immigration judge, Betty Lamb, read the statement of a 14 year old girl, who was taking care of two younger parentless girls (one of them 4 years old and sick), who said that she was holding the two in her lap as she spoke trying to comfort them. She then added “I need comfort, too. I’m bigger than they are, but I am a child, too.” (Exhibit 54).
At this time when our nation is led by scoundrels, we are in need of heroes. Towards this end, please take a moment to write down the name of Elora Mukherjee, a true hero. She is a clinical professor of law and Director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School. She has devoted her career to aiding immigrant children, whom she began visiting in detention facilities in 2007, and litigating violations of the Flores Settlement. Watching her read her own 22 minute statement gave me nightmares. She described the overwhelming stench of the hundreds of detained children, who were very hungry and seriously traumatized. One six year old she tried to question ended up sitting in her lap crying inconsolably, until a guard eventually gave him a lollipop “as an incentive to bring him back to his cell.” (Exhibit 63). Many of the children were seriously in fear of the guards. A number of the children were sick.
I am a native-born American citizen. I have lived here my entire life. Yet I never felt more foreign than while watching these videos. I hope that readers of these words feel the same way. No government of a country that is truly ours, that reflects the morals and values that we possess and believe in, could ever treat children this way. And no decent, moral people, regardless of their political affiliation or their views on immigration, could ever support or approve of the government responsible for such treatment. These children will never get over this. It is one thing for children to arrive here already traumatized and be granted safe haven under our laws. It is entirely another matter for the government of this country to deliberately cause children to suffer in a way that will scar them for life.
Please visit the site of these powerful videos through this link. You can also view the one-minute trailer here. And then please, please help amplify by sharing through social media and email.
Thanks for this project go to Columbia Law School’s Center for Institutional and Social Change and Immigrants’ Rights Clinic; to Waterwell, the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, and Project Amplify; and to all those who participated as readers in the videos." - Copyright 2019 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.