How the US systematically dehumanizes migrant children

Standing up for the children.
Standing up for the children.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Becerril
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The decency of a country, it seems fair to posit, is measured in the way it treats the weakest, and the ones to which it recognizes the least rights. By this measure, the treatment of war prisoners, civil prisoners, and minorities have time and again shown that the land of the free isn’t the human rights beacon it considers itself.

But few examples in recent history compare to the deliberate and systematic abysmal treatment of asylum seekers and migrants—particularly children—detained in border facilities. Separated from their families, these people have been so successfully dehumanized by the hateful political discourse promoted by Donald Trump and his allies that they are effectively not treated like humans.

The administration and its legal representatives have gone as far as arguing in court that unlike regular children, migrant children do not need soap; it has denied flu vaccines, despite the high risk of contagion in overcrowded facilities, effectively questioning their right to health. (Anne Frank died of typhus, history begs us to remember.)

A lawsuit, filed yesterday by 19 states, contains the testimony of Alma Poletti, an investigative supervisor for the Washington state attorney general office. Poletti led a team that conducted interviews with 28 children, most of whom were unaccompanied. Her testimony collects, in upsetting details, the kids’ description of the conditions they were kept in while at the border facility. Poletti’s report reads (pdf) in part:

In one specific facility, the lack of enough food caused kids to fight amongst themselves. One girl described how guards would throw the food on the ground at them as if they were animals, and because there was not enough food to go around, fights would break out among the kids over the food. She remembers a fight over food where one of the guards grabbed a kid by the neck to get him to stop fighting.

The episode described crosses from harsh treatment into sadism—a worrying sign that at least part of the border patrol force seems to have interiorized the political message that people, even children, coming in from the southern border are lesser humans.

One 16-year old girl who was pregnant could not keep the frozen burritos down due to her morning sickness. She asked the guards if they could give her milk or “suero” (a fortified drink, like Pedialyte), because she was pregnant and feeling weak after not being able to keep food down for a lengthy period. The guards told her that she needed to eat what she was given, and if she did not like it, “that’s too bad.”


A different girl remembers that two guards started cursing at a seven-year old girl with horrible words that she refused to repeat to interviewers. The guards were yelling and swearing at the younger girl because she would not stop crying.


Of the children in the room with Maria, eight were around six-years old. Six of them were little boys, and the other two were little girls. She recalls hearing other small children, presumably in the other rooms. The children were scared, crying, hungry, and uncomfortable. One of the girls was also in pain—she had hair lice and was scratching so much she had sores. The older girls in the room were told to take care of the small children, and were constantly told to keep them quiet and stop them from crying “or else.”

The reason these actions are occurring is because the dehumanization process is working its spell. As David Livingstone Smith writes in his Less Than Human, this kind of behavior becomes acceptable once the perpetrators believe they are not inflicting pain on humans, and “exclude the target of aggression from the moral community.” The Nazis believed that of the Jews, the Turkish of the Armenians, the Hutus of the Tutsi—genocides happen systematically, and are perpetrated by people who typically go back to their families for dinner at night.

Many of the guards at the border must have children. It seems fair to imagine they don’t think the ones they are leaving without food or that they are cursing against are as valuable as theirs.

Poletti reports of children left without toilet paper, or with no privacy in using the toilet. One passage about personal hygiene is especially disturbing, as it fleshes out the extent of the degradation inflicted on the children:

Another girl was detained for ten days and never offered a shower, even though she was on her period and was given only one sanitary pad a day. After a number of days, she summoned her courage and asked for a shower, and was given one. She recalls there was another girl at the facility who was also on her period. They were each given one sanitary pad per day. Although the guards knew they had their periods, they were not offered showers or a change of clothes, even when the other girl visibly bled through her pants. This girl had no choice but to continue to wear her soiled underwear and pants.

That is the measure of America’s humanity. Not just the president, or his administration, but the hundreds who are acting on orders to treat children like they don’t deserve any dignity. The officers who weren’t moved to offer a shower, or a change of clothes, to a teenager on her period. The one who would deny milk to a pregnant child. The ones who are out there threatening babies, mocking children for their “really ugly” names (p. 8 in Poletti’s report), or telling them, while laughing, “Welcome to the US, you’re all going to be sent back to Mexicali, but at least you got to see what the US looks like” (p.19). The hundreds who are going above and beyond their orders, adding their own cruelty to the cruelty they are mandated.

Behind them, there are the thousands who agree with Trump that migrants are “animals,” and behind them the ones who voted the president in because of his xenophobic rhetoric, and behind them the ones who voted the president in despite his xenophobic rhetoric.

And behind them, all of us Americans who keep going about our business—Labor Day weekend trips, the last sale of the summer—and have been, for months, because, after all, these children aren’t our children, these people aren’t our people.

Below is Poletti’s report in full:

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