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Opinion

Op-Ed: Get children out of cages at the border and into school

A protest against border detention.
A rally demanding the closure of migrant detention camps on July 12 in San Diego.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Trump administration’s campaign of terror against immigrants and asylum seekers worsens by the day.Parents and children continue to be forcibly separated, children sleep in cages and in freezing rooms, some are so traumatized they no longer speak. Late last month, an administration lawyer argued that maintaining “safe and sanitary conditions” for the 13,000 migrant children in U.S. government custody doesn’t necessarily require providing them with soap and a toothbrush.

As educators, we know that forcibly displaced children, even in the best of circumstances, will carry challenges with them for life. Languishing in makeshift camps in Mexico or surviving nearly a month of detention in Border Patrol cages, and sometimes for many more months in federal shelters, only compounds the trauma that displaced these kids in first place. We also know that schooling can cultivate resilience and is crucial for the future prospects of migrant and refugee children. But there is little sign that children’s futures matter at all on our southern border.

Under U.S. law — in particular the Flores settlement, a court agreement that dates to the Clinton administration — children can’t be held by Customs and Border Protection for long periods. They must be remanded to the Department of Health and Human Services and released to a family sponsor, licensed foster car or placed in adequate shelters, though,//added this comma// as in the border detention centers, there have been widespread allegations of abuse and mistreatment in HHS facilities.

The law also requires that detained children be individually assessed and assigned an education plan. The Trump administration has made it clear that it has little respect for that provision. In early June, Health and Human Services notified its border shelters that it would no longer reimburse them for teachers’ pay, costs for legal services or recreational equipment. There is no guarantee that additional “crisis” funding provided by Congress will change its priorities.

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In 2007, we helped open Oakland International High School, designed for newly arrived immigrant youth in California. Of the 400 students who are currently enrolled, more than 130 have been in detention at the hands of the government’s immigration apparatus, some for several months, some after being separated from their parents. All of our students have significant obstacles to overcome as they transition to new lives and homes in the U.S., but we’ve seen in particular the toll that prolonged and inhumane detention takes on their ability to build trust, to make healthy decisions and to forge positive relationships.

A 2018 meta study, conducted by British researchers, shows the impact of detention on children: 65% to 100% of children surveyed had some level of chronic sleep issues, more than87% had a major depressive disorder, and more than 50% confided suicidal ideation. Although formerly detained children make up a third of the current student body at Oakland International, they make up more than 60% of the school’s urgent mental health referrals. “Sometimes, when we’re in class, we’re distracted or not able to focus,” a Salvadoran student who had made a perilous journey to the U.S. and had spent more than a monthin detention told us. “We just can’t help it.”

Each day a child spends in border detention or in shelters — especially in facilities that lack educational opportunities, not to mention basic care— is a criminal waste for society as well as the children. Students who fall behind due to interrupted education and trauma are more likely to drop out altogether, to develop chronic health conditions and even to end up in prison. And the deeper the trauma and educational gaps the more resource-intensive a child’s schooling — in terms of teacher time, curriculum and general expenditures. At Oakland International, we dedicate almost as much money a year to mental health services as we pay a starting teacher.

In the U.S., we must keep our attention focused on what is happening at the border with Mexico, to pressure Congress and the White House to remedy what is an administration-created human rights crisis. But our border catastrophe has echoes around the globe, with record numbers of displaced men, women and children the world over. The United Nations estimates that nearly 31 million children are forcibly displaced, which amounts to a worldwide generation at risk of severely curtailed opportunities and truncated futures. Yet not all nations treat asylum seekers like criminals, seemingly the default position of the Trump administration.

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We recently observed conditions on the Greek island of Lesvos, where hundreds of thousands of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers have arrived since 2015. The Greek central and municipal governments, with the help of schools, nonprofits and international groups, have largely respected international law and prioritized asylum seekers’ protection in ways that go beyond meeting their basic needs.

Chloe Haralambous works at the Mosaik Community Center on Lesvos, which runs daily classes in English, computer skills and the arts. Education, she says, has proved to be one of the interventions “that not only keeps people alive, but that allows them to be human. You can meet needs around hunger, thirst, shelter, but what about the notion of boredom as something that is psychologically corrosive?”Rather than marginalized and kept locked up, echoes Morteza, an 18-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, “we should be educated to join society, to be a useful person.”

Given the brutal conditions documented in U.S. detention centers, focusing on schooling for children may seem beside the point. But education is a form of dignity. When schools do their job, they rebuild displaced children’s sense of community. In school, we learn how to cooperate, how to be responsible for ourselves and others. Education is also, according to the U.N.'s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, a basic human right.

The thousands of displaced children in U.S. custody need to be let out of their cages (it feels absurd to have to write such a sentence). We have the means to welcome them into stable living situations, as our own rules demand, and into quality schools. Along the border with Mexico, and in refugee camps around the world, children need and deserve an education. All of us will be better off if we make sure they get it.

Lauren Markham is the author of “The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life.” Thi Bui is the author of the illustrated memoir “The Best We Could Do,” about her family’s experience as refugees from Vietnam.


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