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FORCED FUN

The US Border Patrol is building a caged playground for migrant children

REUTERS/Leah Millis
Children at a Border Patrol lockup in Arizona, where a prison yard-style play area is being installed.
  • Justin Rohrlich
By Justin Rohrlich

Geopolitics reporter

The US Border Patrol is building a playground at an Arizona immigration lockup in hopes of “maintaining the health and mental disposition” of detained children, according to federal contracting documents reviewed by Quartz.

Located adjacent to the facility’s intake area, the 30-foot by 60-foot space will be “robust enough to withstand the rigors of Tucson, AZ weather and detained child play activities,” according to the request. The children will play under “detention grade lighting,” surrounded by a 10-foot prison-style fence meant to keep the kids—and things like soccer balls—contained “despite enthusiastic play.”

A corrugated metal roof or “high tension canvas canopy of similar construction aesthetic” will cover the enclosure. A US government source with direct knowledge of the project said the idea for the recreation space came after recommendations from detention experts.

Conditions at the Tucson Coordination Center—the official name of the detention facility where the playground is being built—were described in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as “inhumane and punitive.” The ACLU said the food there is inadequate, cells are overcrowded and filthy, and temperatures inside are freezing.

An increasing number of families with children have sought asylum in the US after fleeing deadly violence in Central America and elsewhere. As part of its zero-tolerance immigration policy, the Trump administration is detaining those families as their cases make their way through the courts. Due to an overburdened immigration court system, however, those cases can take months or longer, meaning many kids are being detained for extended periods. The White House has argued in favor of detaining children indefinitely.

Studies have found that such detention has “harmful health, mental health and developmental consequences for children and negative impacts on parenting.” A mother who was held in 2018 at a family detention facility in Texas told Quartz in a message sent through her attorney that her child lost all motivation, and even stopped eating.

The lawyer, Ira Alkalay, helped the woman prepare for her interview with US asylum officers. He told Quartz he saw dozens of children languishing at the center. The kids “would almost uniformly either cling to their mothers and try to comfort them, or fall asleep in the plastic chairs we all had,” Alkalay said, adding that the children all seemed exhausted—and certainly not in the mood to play.

“The idea of a play space—even a real one rather than what looks like a miniature batting cage with bars from a 1950’s illustration of a zoo—is almost grotesque,” Alkalay said. “It’s an affront to the notion of play.”

Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent who now works as an immigration advocate, says the agency outfits a few facilities with decent services as showpieces for the media. However, she said, conditions at the majority of the detention centers are much worse.

“This is just more propaganda from an agency that has demonstrated time and again that it does not care about the lives of those in their custody,” Budd told Quartz.

Bids on the project are due next week.

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