The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
Dr. Amy J. Cohen delivered the following remarks at Temple Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, CA on Yom Kippur.
When Rabbi Neil kindly invited me to speak before you, to the congregation which, he said, had at one time been haunted by the likes of Stephen Miller, I presumed he was bringing me here to perform a kind of sage-ing ceremony. I’ll do my best.
Let me begin with the words of migrant children in government custody:
From a 5 year old: I was taken with my father. Then the agents separated me from my father right away. I was very frightened and scared. I cried. I have not seen my father again. I have had a cold and cough for several days. I have not seen a doctor or gotten any medicine.
From an 8 year old: They took us away from our grandmother and now we are all alone. We have been here for a long time. I have to take care of my little sister. We sleep on a cement bench.
From an 11 year old: There are little kids here who have no one to take care of them, not even a big brother or sister. Some kids are only two or three years old and they have no one to take care of them.
From a 12 year old: I’m hungry here all the time. I’m so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger...I’m too scared to ask the oﬃcials here for any more food.
From a 15 year old: I started taking care of Marlena (age 5) in the Ice Box after they separated her from her father. The workers did nothing to try to comfort her. She sleeps on a mat with me on the concrete floor. We spend all day every day in that room. There are no activities, only crying.
From a 17 year old mother: I was given a blanket and a mattress but then at 3 AM, the guards took the blanket and mattress. My baby was left sleeping on the floor. In fact, almost every night, the guards wake us at 3 AM and take away our sleeping mats and blankets. They leave babies, even little babies of two or three months sleeping on the cold floor. For me, because I am so pregnant, sleeping on the floor is very painful for my back and hips. I think the guards act this way to punish us.
From a 16 year old at Homestead: The worst part is that we’re not allowed to touch each other at all, not even to comfort each other. Last week my friend couldn’t stop crying because she heard her mother died and I got yelled at for touching her back to comfort her. I was told that if I did it again, I’d be reported and have to stay here longer.
Finally, the story of a 7 year old from El Salvador: I came with my aunt and her female cousin. We came to the United States because there were people who wanted to hurt us. There were people who had eyes on me whenever I went to school. The guards took us to a tent where it was very cold and there were no blankets. We slept on the ground in the tent. The next day, they tricked me and took me away from my aunt and her cousin.
An officer brought me here, by myself, to Clint. Today is the fourth day that I have been here. On some days, a nurse comes and brings two combs for everybody to share. One is a lice comb and the other one is a normal hairbrush. They leave the combs with the children for about 15 or 20 minutes, then someone comes back and tells us to give them back.
Yesterday after lunch, a nurse brought the lice comb and hairbrush. A little while later a guard came back to get them. When the guard asked for the lice comb and hairbrush, we did not know where they were. We looked at each other to see who had the combs. The guard was angry and asked in a rough voice who had the brushes. The other kids were scared and so was I. I felt dizzy and started to cry.
He said that we had ten minutes to look for the combs and that if we couldn’t find them, we were going to be without beds and without covers. He gave us ten minutes. All of us were panicked looking for the combs. We looked under the beds. Kids asked each other if they had seen the brushes. He came back and yelled at us, asking if we had found the combs. We had to tell him that we couldn’t find them.
When we told him, officers came into the room and started taking everything away. They took pillows and blankets. We had a blanket that we were using to hold up in front of the bathroom because there is not a door. The officer even took that one. He said that we were going to sleep in the floor. He said it was punishment for losing the combs. What he said was true. We all slept on the hard tile floor last night. Nobody tried to climb into a bed because the guard said that they were going to take away anybody who tried to get into the bed. They told us that we could not have blankets anymore.
Brought by parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, or taking the harrowing journey on their own, the children of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras flee to our borders. They come to escape some of the world’s worst violence enacted by gangs who roam the streets and haunt the school corridors of their towns, selling drugs and forcing children into recruitment as mules or sex slaves for cartels.
Gangs cut the throats of children who resist and throw their bodies- still in school uniforms- into the town squares, and come in the night to shoot up homes, to drag family members out to the streets where they are murdered in plain sight. They threaten the children of adults who defy them, like the father I met at Port Isabel, a school security guard who’d reported a gang member attempting to sell drugs in his hallways. He was beaten within an inch of his life and told that he must join the cartel and demonstrate his fealty by committing murder if he wished to keep his children alive.
They come, also, to flee some of the most terrible domestic violence in the world. I have listened to the stories of multiple women who have been raped and tortured by their husbands in cultures where they are regarded as property. Their children are beaten and thrown against walls if they try to intervene.
Is it any wonder that parents risk everything to seek an alternative life for these children, fleeing with them when they can, sending them with others or even on their own when they must? And that their destination is the most powerful, wealthiest nation on Earth, the self-declared symbol of strength and freedom?
For many of us, an awareness of our nation’s approach to this vulnerable population came only when the policy of “zero tolerance” sprang into the news. When we heard tales of one of its ugliest derivatives: the atrocity of forced separation of parents and children as young as infants and toddlers. Then the news went dark, until another sordid tale could be told; this time of children sleeping in filth on icy floors of detention cages, growing ill and sometimes dying from close conditions, inadequate food, no soap or drinkable water, no care or attention, and terrifying cruelty from the adults guarding them. Now, again, the news has gone dark, though the suﬀering of thousands of children continues.
My own journey into the dark heart of this nation’s treatment of Central American immigrants came in May of 2018 when I found myself unable to bear the knowledge that children were being torn from their parents and shipped oﬀ to institutions where rules of “no hugging” applied even to child siblings. Having worked for many years with traumatized populations of vulnerable children, I knew first-hand what kind of devastation would be visited upon these children, how they were unlikely to ever fully recover from the devastating psychological and physiological impact of what we were doing to them.
My journey started in McAllen, Texas where families newly released from weeks in detention came to Sister Norma’s Humanitarian Respite Center, frightened, filthy, ill from their time in the icy warehouse where parents and children had been kept apart in chain linked enclosures.
At Sister Norma’s, I sat with families who’d been detained in freezing conditions, babies with appalling, painful rashes from having been left for days in their soiled diapers. Small children with high fevers who’d been placed in the “ice box” at the first sign of illness. Children 7,8,9 years old with empty or frightened eyes, who described being locked into cages in a cold enormous room with no windows, no beds, the florescent light never extinguished, kept apart for weeks from the parents who they couldn’t see, who they called for, pleaded for, in vain. Children who - even after being reunited with parents - were changed, felt separate, apart, haunted by nightmares which led them to avoid sleep. But these families were fortunate. While suﬀering from their weeks of detention, they’d been released and were now together.
Later, in a small room in a remote, desolate prison called Port Isabel, I sat with others who were not so lucky. Parents imprisoned for no crime, parents tormented by terrible images of the children they could not reach in places they could not imagine suﬀering in ways they could not soothe. Children to whom they’d not been permitted to talk to, whose whereabouts they had not been permitted to know. A few parents who - permitted a brief phone call - were left with another sort of horror: vivid and unshakeable memories of the tearful voices of their terrified children pleading with them to come. I am haunted still by the faces, the stories of these weeping, suﬀering parents living and reliving their own worst nightmares. As I am by the children I have sat with in the dismal detention centers, children have grown weary and hopeless, quiet, withdrawn after weeks of unanswered pleading to be released, to be given back to the family who are their anchor to safety.
I have felt deep shame looking into the faces of these children and parents, knowing that their suﬀering was not a byproduct of some policy but rather the very pointed and deliberate purpose of this policy. Knowing that our country had meant to inflict this suﬀering, to tear the hearts from these parents, and to use these children as instruments of their torture.
We know that children are still being brutally pulled from the arms of their parents. Over a thousand infants, toddlers, small and larger children have been separated since the supposed end to “zero tolerance”, despite the success of the ACLU lawsuit. But through all of this, we have heard little of what has become of these children and others. As many as 15,000 immigrant children have been forcibly shuttled away by our government to remote detention centers, languished for months or even years in government-contracted confinement, and kept from loving relatives and friends by a Byzantine system which channels money into the coﬀers of the shelters, up to a billion dollars a year. These are children taken not only from parents, but also from siblings, uncles or aunts, and grandparents. Some who came alone enduring a terrifying journey by holding onto the vision of uniting with those waiting for them once they’d arrived.
Now these children are used in order to torment loving family members who are often handed a cold and mystifying refusal as sponsors after jumping through all manner of arbitrary hoops, some fearful that applying to sponsor will mean a raid by ICE and deportation. These thousands of children are in awful institutions where they may be permitted only one hour of outside time per day, are sometimes given frozen food to eat, inadequate water, emotionally, physically, even sexually abused by their caretakers or other children, medically neglected and forced to take medication which exposes them to significant risks and side eﬀects, and small children forbidden the comforting touch of an adult when they weep, punished if they reach out to each other in compassion or fellowship.
Some children who are kept until their 18th birthday are visited at 6 AM by ICE oﬃcials, and are shackled and dragged oﬀ to teaming and terrifying adult detention centers, often private maximum security prisons in places like Tallahatchie, MS and, Jonesboro, LA, where they will never find an attorney to take their cases and will almost surely be deported -- often back to a certain death.
This is what our government does to immigrant children. Surely history will view the treatment of these terrorized, traumatized asylum-seeking children as a stain on the moral character of this nation second only to slavery.
But there is more. And we must face it.
Over this past week I have looked at the latest numbers of children in government custody and was surprised to see that these numbers have dropped. Surprised because the government had contracted to actually increase the detention bed count for immigrant children to 20,000. Curious, I consulted with my work partner, Carlos Holguin, the senior Flores Settlement Agreement attorney, and asked him how this could be. Certainly, the government had not shifted to a policy of expediting the release of these children to family and community.
No, it has not. Rather, like some monstrous beast, it has merely morphed, eﬀectively adapted to the threat of its environment. This administration is nimble. Having learned that the American public will only respond to sordid tales of atrocities in their own backyards, they have moved their immigration operations oﬀ American soil, away from potential interest and protest, away from journalists capturing the local, vivid story that their editors are likely to approve.
America’s cruel policies - policies which violate every tenet of moral behavior as well as American and international law - many of these policies and their deadly eﬀects have now been outsourced: moved south where they are rendered largely invisible to Americans. Travel to parts of Mexico, to the borders of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and you will often find American personnel quietly overseeing the torture of these children and their families. But now by Mexican and Central American proxies. Many of us know, of course, of the “wait in Mexico” plan, where those who have managed to reach and cross our borders and have had all of their belongings - including diapers, medication, clothing for children, even identification papers - confiscated by Border Patrol are then driven to and dumped in some of the deadliest cities in Mexico. There they are left, still clothed in the filthy garments in which they arrived, handed a small slip of paper bearing a United States immigration court date some months in the future, forbidden to re-enter until that date.
These asylum seekers - often young women and children - attempting to wait for those court dates so they may pursue their asylum claims and compete for the rare shelter beds in these Mexican towns, are often forced to sleep on the streets where, day and night, they are fodder for criminal elements who recognize and exploit their vulnerability. Many are raped, many kidnapped for ransom or to sell as slaves, many simply disappear. My group has received frantic calls from relatives in Central America often searching for young daughters or nieces or grandchildren who have disappeared after being left in places like Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez or Reynosa.
New diabolical contracts the United States has bribed or forced from government oﬃcials in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras seek to keep their threatened asylum-seeking citizens sequestered within their own borders. Does it work? Facing extreme violence and unprotected by police or the government, these families will find any means possible to save themselves and their children. Lock the door of a burning house and its inhabitants will jump from the windows.
Those who manage to flee their countries often end up in Tapachula, a city across the water from Guatemala. There they remain in a kind of no man’s land, a Godot nightmare, trapped by the Mexican government who refuse to allow them passage into the rest of Mexico.
Prevented from moving forward, too terrified to go back, some are captured and thrown into the largest and most notoriously abusive detention center in Latin America called 21st Century. Mothers are forced to reuse their babies’ diapers for weeks, are left hungry and forced to sleep with their terrified children on cement floors among the rats and cockroaches. Once detained there, some are never heard from again.
Others more fortunate are simply stuck and often starving in Tapachula, unable to work or feed their families. Last night, I spoke with Father Richard Estrada, who has just returned from Tapachula. He told me that the shelters there are swelled to breaking. One which generally houses a population of 100 and has a capacity of 200 is housing over 600, mostly women and children fleeing violence. They cram together on the floors of even the laundry rooms where there are no beds or even mats.
These children, these families, this horror. We, as Americans, we own this. This is being done in our name. We are allowing our administration to violate our own and international asylum law. We are looking the other way while children are taken from families and tortured at our border, detained, abused, and neglected by the thousands and now kept from even reaching our borders through demonic pacts with corrupt and inhumane governments whose behavior our own government is directing.
When faced with atrocities visited upon the helpless in our name the only true atonement is action.
As we spend this day solidifying our commitment to be better, to do better, let us work to declare that this is not who we are. Let us fight this government’s eﬀort to take complete control of these children by snuﬃng out of the Flores Settlement agreement, the only current mechanism of oversight and protection of these children. Let us demand that these children and families who have suﬀered so much be oﬀered the asylum they deserve. Let us call for reparative trauma treatment for those we have harmed. Let us push back against the ugly, slanderous untruths which even now are being perpetrated to justify this unconscionable behavior.
Let us vow, at last, to reclaim the humanity that our nation has lost, for the sake not only of the innocent but also of our own souls.