Things That Matter

These Harrowing Letters Written By Children In Detention Centers Are Surfacing With Accounts Of Sexual Assault And Hunger

Univision Noticias /YouTube

Reports of sexual and physical abuse in detention centers aren’t new, but a series of handwritten letters by migrant youth in detention centers offer a closer look at the violence and neglect children experience during their journeys to the US and while locked up in immigration holding centers.

Spanish-language network Univision obtained a dozen letters from children, between the ages of 13 and 17, who denounced the inhumane conditions, which one described as “torment,” at the “hieleras” or “perreras,” Spanish for holding cells. Each of the youths spoke under the condition of anonymity.

One migrant teen said she was “treated badly” and “starved” under US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), also noting that agents spoke to her “with demeaning and discriminatory words.” Another child added that youth who became ill weren’t treated; instead, they were placed in confinement

Univision Noticias /YouTube

One teenage girl, who said she spent five days in a cell sick, confirmed the allegation.

“I was sick, I asked for help and they did not offer it to me,” she wrote. “There were babies crying, sick children. We only bathed one time since we arrived. I had a very bad time, they treated us badly, they woke us up all the time.”

One of the unaccompanied minors said the young migrants “didn’t have anything to sleep on” and that they “couldn’t bathe themselves.”

Outside a shelter in Mexico, where one boy stopped during his journey to the US, he said he was sexually abused while begging for food. The child left the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Baja to ask strangers for donations so he could pay for food. That’s when one man stopped and coerced him into a sexual exchange.

Univision Noticias /YouTube

“He told me, ‘I want you to do something to me that I want with you,’” the boy noted in his letter. “Well, he took me to a hotel room. He told me, ‘bathe.’ I bathed and then he forced me to have sex with him because I was hungry, well, the necessity. He forced me because I was very hungry. And I had to do it not because I wanted to, but because he forced me. Well, everything happened and he gave me money. For me it was very dirty, but the necessity [to eat] led me to do it.”

As a result of the violence they experienced during their trek north and while in US detention centers, some teens expressed an interest in doing work in their new country to help unaccompanied minors like themselves.

“My dream is to study to be a lawyer so that I can help migrants from other countries to achieve their dream as I am fulfilling my dream,” one undocumented teen wrote. 

Univision Noticias /YouTube

She added: “My dream is to be a lawyer because I know it’s hard to leave our country.”

According to United States guidelines, unaccompanied youth must be released from Border Patrol facilities within 72 hours, where they are then required to be transferred to the United States Department of Health & Human Services, which places the children with a sponsor. Currently, there are tens of thousands of youth at CBP facilities along the border.

Read:  In Mexican Shelters, African And Haitian Migrants Are Uprising Against Inhumane Treatment

Because Words Matter: Rep Joaquin Castro Wants To Get Rid Of The Words “Alien” And “Illegal” In Federal Law, And That Is A Big Deal

Things That Matter

Because Words Matter: Rep Joaquin Castro Wants To Get Rid Of The Words “Alien” And “Illegal” In Federal Law, And That Is A Big Deal

Before we go ahead with this story let’s do something rapidito. Ready? OK, so let’s do a little thought experiment… 

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you read or hear the word “alien”? Perhaps something like this?

Credit: @rzaba3 / Giphy

Yeah, something totally out of popular culture sci-fi imaginary, and what all those people that are pretending to storm into Area 51 are hoping to find. 

Or perhaps something out of a Hollywood blockbuster? A slimy, flesh-eating beast?

Credit: @nerdist / Giphy

The stuff that comes in your pesadillas at night! 

And what about the world “illegal”? Que te viene a la mente? Perhaps a police headshot? 

See where we are getting at? Your mind goes to criminality, shoot outs, police stations and fugitives, the world of law enforcement. It makes you feel threatened. 

Now, if you combine “illegal” with “alien”, this is what some gringos might think about:

Credit: @machetekills / Giphy
Credit: Giphy. @machetekills

Although Danny Trejo is a sweetheart, he is the epitome of the visual representation of the “bad hombre” in Trumplandia. 

And now think about “illegal alien” in the current political context. Does your brain produce an image similar to this?

Credit: image1170x530cropped. Digital image. UN News

It’s a big jump from movie characters and slimy monsters to the plight of thousands of migrants who are fleeing violence, war and persecution in their home countries, right? It doesn’t take a law or literature degree to see how the use of “alien” and “illegal” criminalizes anyone who tries to migrate to another country through whatever means necessary. 

Actually the dictionary definitions of these two words are pretty damning: 

Credit: black-and-white-dictionary. Digital image. EF English Live

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines them as follows:

“Alien” means “coming from a different country, race, or group” or “strange and not familiar” or “relating to creatures from another planet”. 

“Illegal” means “not allowed by law” and the dictionary gives the following examples: “a campaign to stop the illegal sale of cigarettes to children under 16”, “Prostitution is illegal in some countries”, “It is illegal to drive a car that is not registered and insured” and “Cocaine, LSD, and heroin are all illegal drugs/substances”. 

Phrasing is important, so that is why Texas Representative Joaquin Castro introduced a bill to change federal legislation and taking off the words “alien” and “illegal” from policy. So what is the terminology he is proposing?

The terms “alien” and “illegal alien” are an accusation rather than a denomination, and Castro doesn’t hold himself back from calling this a way of demonizing and dehumanize migrant communities. According to an article published by Foreign Affairs New Zealand, Castro is proposing a different, middle-ground terminology for describing individuals who migrate to the country outside of the official immigration system: “Congressman Joaquin Castro (TX-20), Chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Vice Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and a member of the House Intelligence and Education and Labor Committees, today introduced the CHANGE Act, legislation that eliminates the term “alien” and “illegal alien” from the Immigration and Nationality Act, and replaces them with “foreign national” and “undocumented foreign national” respectively”. 

This small but significant change would alter how courts and the justice system in general perceives migrants. Repeat after us: “words matter”!

This is how Joaquin Castro himself puts it: “Words matter. It’s vital that we respect the dignity of immigrants fleeing violence and prosecution in our language. The words “alien” and “illegal alien” work to demonize and dehumanize the migrant community. They should have no place in our government’s description of human beings. Immigrants come to our borders in good faith and work hard for the opportunity to achieve a better life for themselves and their family. Eliminating this language from government expression puts us one step closer to preserving their dignity and ensuring their safety”.

The legal system deals in the currency of words and descriptions. Judges and juries make their decisions based on how the alleged crimes are presented, and the words “alien” and “illegal alien” certainly cast a shadow of criminality over migrants. These words strip them of a face, of a life story, of a personality. And this institutional act of stigmatization takes place regardless of whether the person being judged is an old woman, a adult man or a child (we seriously can’t get over how brutal authorities can be, even getting kids to decide which parent they want to stay with at the border). 

The use of “alien” has long been a stigma on the Latino community.

Credit: LATimes

As Jose Antonio Vargas wrote in a heartbreaking 2015 editorial published by The New York Times (we really recommend you read the whole thing):

“RESIDENT ALIEN.”

Those two words, in all caps, adorn the plastic-covered green card that my grandfather, a naturalized U.S. citizen, handed me shortly after I arrived in the United States from the Philippines. I was 12. I don’t remember thinking much about the card (which was not green) or the words (which, strung together, seemed like the title of a video game or a movie). It wasn’t until four years later, while applying to get a driver’s permit, that I learned the card was fake. I wasn’t a “RESIDENT ALIEN” at all but another kind of alien — in common parlance, an “illegal alien.”

The label “alien” is nothing but alienating. And when coupled with “illegal,” it’s especially toxic. The words seep into the psyche, sometimes to the point of paralysis. They’re dehumanizing.

So does Joaquin Castro look like VERY familiar? Well get used to that face (two very trending politicians wear it with Brown Latino pride!)

Credit: joaquincastrotx / Instagram

 Joaquin is the twin of Julian Castro, one of the candidates in the run for the Democratic presidential nomination. The brothers were born to a chicana political activist. That is why  social justice and human dignity runs in their blood. They are sort of a Latino Kennedy duo championing migrants rights! Yes, please. 

BTW, Castro has a long history of fighting for migrant rights, of course

Credit: @joaquincastrotx / Twitter

Joaquin Castro was born in 1974, so he is a pretty young politician at just 44 years of age. As we said, his family was politically active from a very early age, so it is no surprise that migration is on top of his legislative agenda. Depending on how his brother Julian does in the Democratic primary (our prediction is that he will get better recognition in mainstream politics, but it is a long shot for him), the Castro twins could either become an important part of the new administration or a fierce opposition to a second Trump term (oh, we hate to say this but we might need to consider the possibility that this might actually happening). 

And he is no fan of POTUS.

Credit: @joaquincastro / Twitter

He is unafraid of calling him out when needed, like when Trump went ballistic over the progressive agenda of the Fantastic Four (that’s how we prefer to call Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib).

A Father And Daughter Were Separated By U.S. Immigration Only To Reunite On Her Deathbed

Things That Matter

A Father And Daughter Were Separated By U.S. Immigration Only To Reunite On Her Deathbed

Adhy Savala / Unsplash

It is with unrelenting sadness that we report the death of Heydi Gámez García, 13, who took her life after her father’s asylum request was denied for the third time. Heydi’s father, Manuel Gámez, sent her to the U.S. after his father was gunned down by MS-13 for refusing to pay a “war tax” to the gang. He didn’t expect that Heydi would be granted asylum, but that he would be deported.

Manuel certainly didn’t envision that his goodbye hug and kiss four years ago would be the last time he would hug and kiss his daughter while she was still alive.

The Gámaz family was broken by MS-13 and failed again by the U.S. immigration system.

Credit: @amy_baker22 / Twitter

Heydi’s mother walked out on her and her dad when she was less than two months old. By the time Heydi was a year old, Manuel left for New York as an undocumented immigrant to make money to send back home. After his father was killed by MS-13, and his mother’s health started failing, he worried about who would care for Heydi and his younger sister, Zoila.

Manuel’s sister was granted asylum and cared for Heydi in his absence in New York.

Credit: @holliewolfen / Twitter

A year after his father’s death, he sent Heydi, Zoila and his brother to the U.S. Heydi and Zoila were granted asylum. Heydi learned English within a year and started teaching her father, via phone calls, how to correctly pronounce English words. They spoke every day, always asking when he’d come.

After two failed attempts to gain asylum, Heydi lost hope for being reunited and started cutting herself.

Credit: @holliewolfen / Twitter

He never wanted to make promises he couldn’t keep, like being there for her quinceañera. Heydi watched her classmates complain about their parents’ visiting their school and fell into a depression. In December, she was brought to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation after cutting her wrist at school. She was seeing a therapist until two months before her suicide.

“Please forgive me for failing you,” Manuel wants to tell his daughter.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there… I never meant to leave you,” he says to her. Heydi was Manuel’s only child. Heydi’s aunt is coping with impossible guilt. She told CNN, “I was supposed to be protecting her. I would never send her to Honduras. But I never thought something bad would happen to her here.”

Manuel was released on a two week ‘humanitarian’ visit to release Heydi from life support.

Credit: @holliewolfen / Twitter

He finally got to hold her hand and comfort her as she left this life behind. “We love you,” he whispered to her. “Don’t leave us.”

The last thing Heydi told anyone was that she lost hope in being reunited with her father.

Credit: @MaryJaneKnows / Twitter

She was crying as she told her aunt that she feels hopeless and that one day, she’ll become a lawyer to help her dad’s case. She then said she wanted to be alone and was found two hours later in a closet. She didn’t leave a note.

She was declared brain dead a week later at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Queens.

Dr. Charles Schleien told CNN that she was in a “neurologically devastated state” upon arrival with “no hope for recovery.” He went on to disclose that the Gámaz family “chose to turn tragedy into the gift of life. Heydi is an organ donor and her final act will be to save others.”

The mental health impacts of family separation at our borders can only be told one story at a time.

Credit: @apbenven / Twitter

It is the only empathic way to relate to the emotional scars of our community. Every story is important. Every life lost to policies that don’t incorporate the most visceral human desires, like growing up with your father by your side, is one life too many. 

What on earth are we doing?

Credit: @JoeGould50 / Twitter

How can anyone go about business as usual? How do we humanize brown-skinned people to every voter and decision-maker? The only way we know how is to continually voice your concerns to your representatives and create space for these stories. Don’t look away. The grief of the Gámaz family is all of our grief. 

A Manuel, you did not fail your daughter. We all did. We are so sorry.

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