Concentration Camps for Kids: An Open Letter

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Children and staff at the Trump administration’s tent facility for detaining migrant children separated from their parents, Tornillo, Texas, June 19, 2018

In Tornillo, Texas, in rows of pale yellow tents, some 1,600 children who were forcefully taken from their families sleep in lined-up bunks, boys separated from the girls. The children, who are between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, have limited access to legal services. They are not schooled. They are given workbooks but they are not obliged to complete them. The tent city in Tornillo is unregulated, except for guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services. Physical conditions seem humane. The children at Tornillo spend most of the day in air-conditioned tents, where they receive their meals and are offered recreational activities. Three workers look after groups of twenty children each. The children are permitted to make two phone calls per week to their family members or sponsors, and are made to wear belts with phone numbers written out for their emergency contacts.

However, the children’s psychological conditions are anything but humane. At least two dozen of the children who arrived in Tornillo were given just a few hours’ notice in their previous detention center before they were taken away—any longer than that, according to one of the workers at Tornillo, and the children may have panicked and tried to escape. Because of these circumstances, the children of Tornillo are inevitably subjected to emotional trauma. After their release (the date of which has not yet been settled), they will certainly be left with emotional scars, and no one can expect these children to ever feel anything but gut hatred for the country that condemned them to this unjust imprisonment.

The workers at the Tornillo camp, which was expanded in September to a capacity of 3,800, say that the longer a child remains in custody, the more likely he or she is to become traumatized or enter a state of depression. There are strict rules at such facilities: “Do not misbehave. Do not sit on the floor. Do not share your food. Do not use nicknames. Do not touch another child, even if that child is your hermanito or hermanita [younger sibling]. Also, it is best not to cry. Doing so might hurt your case.” Can we imagine our own children being forced to go without hugging or being hugged, or even touching or sharing with their little brothers or sisters?

Federal officials will not let reporters interview the children and have tightly controlled access to the camp, but almost daily reports have filtered through to the press. Tornillo, though unique—even among the hundred-plus US detention facilities for migrant children—in its treatment of minors, is part of a general atmosphere of repression and persecution that threatens to get worse. The US government is detaining more than 13,000 migrant children, the highest number ever; as of last month, some 250 “tender age” children aged twelve or under had not yet been reunited with their parents. Recently, the president has vowed to “put tents up all over the place” for migrants.

This generation will be remembered for having allowed for concentration camps for children to be built on “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” This is happening here and now, but not in our names.

Rabih Alameddine
Jon Lee Anderson
Margaret Atwood
Paul Auster
Andrea Bajani
Alessandro Baricco
Elif Batuman
Neil Bissoondath
José Burucúa
Giovanna Calvino
Emmanuel Carrère
Javier Cercas
Christopher Cerf
Roger Chartier
Michael Cunningham
William Dalrymple
Robert Darnton
Deborah Eisenberg
Mona Eltahawy
Álvaro Enrigue
Richard Ford
Edwin Frank
Garth Greenwell
Andrew Sean Greer
Linda Gregerson
Ethel Groffier
Helon Habila
Rawi Hage
Aleksandar Hemon
Edward Hirsch
Siri Hustvedt
Tahar Ben Jalloun
Arthur Japin
Daniel Kehlmann
Etgar Keret
Peter Kimani
Binnie Kirshenbaum
Khaled Al Khamissi
Dany Laferrière
Jhumpa Lahiri
Laila Lalami
Herb Leibowitz
Barry Lopez
Valeria Luiselli
Norman Manea
Alberto Manguel
Yann Martel
Guillermo Martínez
Diana Matar
Hisham Matar
Maaza Mengiste
Rohinton Mistry
Benjamin Moser
José Luis Moure
Azar Nafisi
Guadalupe Nettel
Mukoma Wa Ngugi
Ruth Padel
Rajesh Parameswaran
Dawit L. Petros
Caryl Phillips
Nelida Piñon
Francine Prose
Sergio Ramírez
David Rieff
Salman Rushdie
Alberto Ruy Sánchez
Aurora Juana Schreiber
Wallace Shawn
Patti Smith
Susan Swan
Santiago Sylvester
Madeleine Thien 
Colm Tóibín
Kirmen Uribe
Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Juan Villoro
Susan Yankowitz

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