The Flores Exhibits: A window into the trauma of children in immigrant detention

Update on September 27, 2019: Good news! While the legal case behind the Flores Exhibits is still pending, today a judge in another case blocked the Trump Administration’s attempt to eliminate the Flores Settlement Agreement. Read about the ruling here.

I want to share with you something that is hard to face, but that I think we need to face squarely and do something about: the devastating impact of US immigrant detention on children.

I recently came across a website that provides a powerful and unforgettable window into the trauma that children are currently experiencing in US immigrant detention: a collection of video testimonies called the Flores Exhibits.

Here is the website’s own description of the material:

In the videos below, artists, lawyers, advocates, and immigrants read the sworn testimonies of children held in detention facilities at the U.S. / Mexico Border.

This project is part of a national campaign to establish legal protections for immigrant children held in U.S. government facilities.

The 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement sets a limit on the length of time a child can be detained, requires that they be held in the least restrictive area possible, and guarantees access to basic hygiene supplies, adequate nutrition, and appropriate clothing.

In June 2019, a team of lawyers who work as independent monitors of the detention facilities took more than 60 testimonies from children detailing lengthy stays, ongoing family separations, and dirty, unsafe conditions.

These sworn testimonies were submitted as exhibits in a motion for a Temporary Restraining Order filed by the National Center for Youth Law. The motion seeks to provide immediate relief to children living without access to basic hygiene supplies and adequate nutrition or sleep.

The Trump administration recently announced a proposal to eliminate the Flores Settlement Agreement entirely, allowing indefinite detention and eliminating independent oversight of DHS facilities. The need to raise awareness, organize, and take action is urgent.

These testimonies have had a profound effect on me. We’ve all heard a lot about kids in cages, but it’s rare to hear the words of the kids themselves. They range from toddlers to teenagers, and their stories are heart-wrenching. No human being should ever have to undergo what they are experiencing.

When you go to the website, you’ll see a long list of “exhibits,” each one a short video in which someone reads a child’s testimony (or, in a few cases, the testimony of someone who has worked with the children). I’m not sure anyone could go through all of them at once; that would frankly be hard to bear. I’ve only watched a selection so far myself. But you might want to start with Exhibit #63, the account of Elora Mukherjee, an immigration attorney who helped put together the exhibits and took many of the testimonies herself. Exhibit #13, pediatrician Dr. Dolly Lucio Sevier’s account of the horrendously negligent medical and sanitation practices at one of the detention facilities (read by Kathleen Chalfant) is especially disturbing. And if you want to see a real live celebrity—a comic actor reading a testimony that isn’t comic at all—go to Exhibit #50 read by David Schwimmer, best known for his role as Ross on Friends.

Immigrant detention has horrific consequences, both short-term and long-term, for everyone subjected to it—especially children. My partner, Patricia, has monitored detention facilities in Mexico as part of her work with the Citizens’ Council of the National Institute of Migration, and she has seen those consequences firsthand. Psychologists, human rights advocates, and international bodies like the UN agree that children should not be detained at all, and that in fact there is no need to detain any immigrant, with only a few rare exceptions. A mountain of research has shown that community-based alternatives to detention are more humane, more effective, and even less expensive. (For a quick summary of the reasons for alternatives to detention, read page 1 of the UN report Options for governments on open reception and alternatives to detention.)

I invite you to take some time to watch the Flores Exhibits, but don’t stop there. I encourage you to also click the “Take Action” link on the upper right-hand corner of the Flores Exhibits website and do what you feel called to do. As it says, “The need to raise awareness, organize, and take action is urgent.” I believe that, like the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, what’s happening at the border now will eventually be seen as a dark stain on our history. I pray that we will see the light.

• • •

P.S. The day after writing this post, the House Democrats announced an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. I think this is long overdue, for so many reasons. I pray that our elected officials will bring the truth to light and honor their oaths to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

5 Replies to “The Flores Exhibits: A window into the trauma of children in immigrant detention”

  1. Thanks for this posting Greg. It is big and disturbing amount of information that take a while to digest. I am grateful for their offering of ideas to take action. We need to step up.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Greg. This is disturbing and more public attention needs to be drawn to it. I would like to post a link to the exhibits on Facebook, and I probably will, but I expect skeptics to ask how a small child can “declare on penalty of perjury”? How would they even know what that means? I don’t know how to answer that.

  3. Good question, Martha. Most of the children are teenagers, who would have no trouble understanding perjury. I think we can safely assume that the younger children had it explained to them in simpler terms (along the lines of “You need to tell the truth”) before giving the actual testimony. Child testimonies under oath are standard procedure in courts all over the world. And after doing some digging, I found that children can be tried for perjury in a juvenile court, but it is rarely done, especially when it comes to smaller children.

    It seems to me, though, that “skeptics” would be missing the point. Whatever the legal technicalities of oaths and perjury, do they really think the children are lying? Besides the absurdity of accusing them of such a thing without evidence, the fact is that 1) children in the same facility tell stories that are remarkably similar, 2) the observations of outside monitors (including the doctors and attorneys testifying in these exhibits) corroborate the stories, 3) publicly available photos and videos confirm similar stories, and 4) even Border Patrol agents speaking on condition of anonymity confirm similar stories. This removes any real doubt about the veracity of the children’s testimony.

  4. You’re welcome, Martha. I’m glad my response was helpful. I appreciate your asking the legal question, because it actually gave me an opportunity to learn more about the laws regarding children’s testimonies.

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