We live in incredible times. People can wear wristwatches that access the internet. Star Wars movies–and television shows!–now come out once or year or so. And U.S. immigration authorities are arresting and imprisoning more immigrant children trying to cross our nation’s border with Mexico than at any other time in our history.
Please, take a moment to think about that last line a bit. U.S. government agents and officials are detaining children–sometimes apprehended alone, other times separated from their families–and placing them in detention centers, camps, even cages. This is a new feature unique to the Trump Administration’s approach to immigration, which can best be summed up by Atlantic writer Adam Serwer’s now-famous warning: “The cruelty is the point.”
“American immigration authorities apprehended 76,020 minors, most of them from Central America, traveling without their parents in the fiscal year that ended in September — 52 percent more than during the last fiscal year, according to United States Customs and Border Protection,” The New York Times reported on Oct. 29. That story included interviews with a number of these children, including José Angel, 17, of Honduras:
“It is every Honduran’s boy dream to get to the United States, where there is more money and kids are able to go to school,” said José Angel, 17. He was born with a disability that left him unable to use his arms and left his hometown because his grandmother could no longer take care of him.
He was hopeful he could apply for asylum in the United States despite Mr. Trump’s many efforts to severely lower the number of people granted asylum. “It is scary, but you have to take a chance,” he said.
On Nov. 5, Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Yorba Linda) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York) toured a shelter in Fullerton that has been caring for children who’ve been separated from their parents by Trump’s blatantly white supremacist immigration policy.
“It is our responsibility to put forward solutions to address our immigration system and end the inhumane treatment of people because of their country of origin,” said Cisneros in a Nov. 5 news release from his office. “The children we saw today are simply trying to pursue a better life, as are the thousands of immigrant families who look to America as a beacon of hope and come to our country wanting to contribute to our communities and economy. For the sake of these children, their parents, and our entire immigrant community, we need humane comprehensive immigration reform that upholds our American values.”
Ironically, the same day Cisneros toured the Fullerton shelter, UC Irvine announced that one of its researchers, psychological science professor Jodi Quas (along with USC law professor Thomas Lyon), had just published a paper for the Society for Research on Child Development on the proper forensic interviewing of immigrant children.
“The challenges of dealing with the influx of immigrant children at the United States’ borders are profound. Approximately 5,000 to 10,000 unaccompanied children, including many young adolescents, arrive each month at the southwestern border,” states their paper. “To determine whether these children will be given safe haven in the United States, authorities question them about their origins and family background, traveling companions, decision-making competency, history of abuse and violence exposure, and risk of being smuggled and trafficked. In this context, children are at significant risk of reporting their experiences incompletely or inaccurately, which can affect life-altering decisions about their immigration status. Decades of scientific research have demonstrated how to interview children to obtain accurate and complete reports of their experiences, competencies, and attitudes. This evidence highlights the critical need for clear protocols regarding when and how children should be interviewed, including how questions should be phrased. Research also points to the necessity for extensive training of professionals who conduct the interviews.”
Factors Quas and Lyon highlight in their paper include:
Language and cultural barriers amplify children’s fear and confusion, further inhibiting their openness.
Many immigrant children suffer from high levels of stress due to trauma suffered in their home country (e.g., sexual abuse, witnessing rape or murder) or during their journey to the U.S. (e.g., abduction, being held for ransom, trafficking), and their experiences once apprehended (e.g., parental separation, interactions with unfamiliar authority figures).
Interviewers commonly respond to initial reluctance in children with unsupportive and coercive behavior, which further exacerbates children’s reluctance.
While such research can be extraordinarily helpful to an administration that doesn’t completely view immigration through a white supremacist lens, I can’t imagine it will be of much use to the Trump Administration, which seems to enjoy the sadism of separating children from their parents and then placing them into cages.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.