Christian leaders are speaking out after reports last weekend described horrifying conditions facing hundreds of children inside of federal detention facilities on the U.S. southern border.
“This is unconscionable,” tweeted Dan Darling, vice president for communications at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, after reading a chilling piece published Friday by The New York Times.
The newspaper reported on a group of lawyers who last week visited an overcrowded immigration detention facility in Clint, Texas, where hundreds of children are being detained with no access to basic hygiene like soap, toothpaste or toothbrushes.
“There is a stench,” Elora Mukherjee, a lawyer who visited the facility, told the outlet. “The overwhelming majority of children have not bathed since they crossed the border.”
Mukherjee, the director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, was part of a team of six lawyers that met with 60 children at the Clint facility this week. When the lawyers arrived, they were told that as many as 350 children were being detained there.
“The children are locked in their cells and cages nearly all day long,” Mukherjee explained. “A few of the kids said they had some opportunities to go outside and play, but they said they can’t bring themselves to play because they are trying to stay alive in there.”
By the end of the lawyers’ visit, about 200 children were said to have been transferred to an undisclosed location. The lawyers were not told where the children were moved.
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According to The New York Times, another group of lawyers made similar discoveries at six other detention locations in Texas.
In addition to lawyers, medical experts have voiced concern as some children have been forced to sleep on concrete floors with the lights on. Physician Dolly Lucio Sevier wrote a medical declaration obtained by ABC News.
"The conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities," Sevier stated after being granted access to a facility in McAllen, Texas.
The facility in McAllen is the largest Customs and Border Patrol facility in the country.
The Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s Office warned in May of “dangerous overcrowding” taking place at a border processing center in El Paso, where up to 900 migrants were being held in a facility meant for 125.
“Border Patrol agents told us some of the detainees had been held in standing-room-only conditions for days or weeks,” the report reads.
“We also observed detainees standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space, thus limiting access to toilets,” the report added.
As many are speaking out about the unsanitary conditions inside the facilities, Justice Department lawyer Sarah Fabian defended the Trump administration’s policy of not providing basic hygiene items to detained children before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
She argued in a legal settlement that set “safe and sanitary” standards for detention and treatment of migrant minors does not specifically require the federal government to supply hygienic items. However, such an argument was rejected by the panel.
“Are you arguing seriously that you do not read the agreement as requiring you to do anything other than what I just described: cold all night long, lights on all night long, sleeping on concrete and you’ve got an aluminum foil blanket?” Judge William Fletcher said, according to The New York Times. “I find that inconceivable that the government would say that is safe and sanitary.”
Robert P. George, a Princeton University law professor and prominent conservative Catholic scholar, is among the many who took to Twitter to voice their outrage with the conditions for detained migrant children.
“The mistreatment of migrant children in government custody is wrong — and shameful — whether it is under Democrats or Republicans, Obama or Trump. Enough with the partisan finger-pointing. Reform the system and fund it. We're talking about innocent children,” George wrote.
“No matter the reason (and no matter where) children are in government custody, soap, toothbrushes, blankets, & a decent place to sleep are minimal conditions of human decency. This should not need to be litigated and it's disgraceful for govt. agencies to defend the indefensible,” George continued in another tweet.
“‘Them before us’ — children's welfare above adults' desires — should be our motto. It should govern attitudes and conduct whether a child is born or unborn, a boy or a girl, healthy or infirm, migrant or citizen, irrespective of race or ethnicity. Certain principles are bedrock.”
Author and Southern Baptist minister Alan Cross, who engages churches in immigration and refugee advocacy, suggested that The New York Times article should be eye-opening for Christians.
“If you can read this, and you are an American Christian, and you think this is okay or this doesn’t grieve you in some way, may God have mercy on your soul,” Cross tweeted. “All that we do is pointless if we can’t care about this issue. What are our churches doing to help?”
Matthew Soerens, the U.S. director of church mobilization at the evangelical humanitarian agency World Relief, called on evangelicals to “speak up loudly” to “ insist that kids need to be treated humanely” and “not be detained.”
He contended that white evangelicals, who have been one of President Donald Trump’s most loyal bases of support, had a major impact last year when evangelical leaders spoke out against the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to an increase in immigrant children being separated from their families.
Even Franklin Graham, who has been largely supportive of the administration’s policies, was critical of family separation policy.
“I'm convinced it was in significant part evangelicals' advocacy that made the difference, because the White House realized it was losing even the white evangelical voters who had been among the most loyal supporters, as polls would later demonstrate,” Soerens wrote.
Soerens called on white evangelicals to call their members of Congress and “fill the voicemail box.” The basic messages, he said, are that “we must respect our asylum laws” and “appropriate funds to care decently for kids.”
“[B]ut also get kids (& parents) out of custody as quickly as possible, not in Mexico (which isn’t safe & where there’s no legal counsel) but with their family/ friends in the US,” Soerens stressed.
Over the weekend, Trump vowed to hold off on plans for mass deportation raids for at least two weeks, seeking to reach an immigration reform deal with Democrats that produces a “solution to the Asylum and Loophole problems at the Southern Border.”
“If not, Deportations start!” Trump assured in a tweet Saturday.
The raids were expected to start Sunday targeting a number of major U.S. cities and Trump vowed to deport millions.