“A lot of girls cry. They have thoughts of cutting themselves,” a 14-year old Guatemalan girl told a Reuters reporter in June. “I feel asphyxiated having so many people around me. There’s no one here I can talk to about my case, or when I’m feeling sad. I just talk to God and cry,” said another teenage girl from Honduras who was held in the Dallas convention center with 2,600 other children.

It gets worse when you read press reports written over the summer. Kids in custody reported spoiled food, no clean clothes, sleeping on cots under glaring lights, drinking spoiled milk when there isn’t water. According to The New York Times, a military base in El Paso detained youth who said they’d gone days without showering while in Erie, Pa., lice were rampant. In June, roughly 4,000 unaccompanied children were being held by the Department of Health and Human Services — a step up from ICE detention, but still in facilities where the media is not permitted.

No one denies that growing numbers of immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. present a difficult problem. The Biden administration understands and has worked to alleviate the suffering. Still, the incarceration of children is inhumane. As Leecia Welch, a lawyer at the National Center for Youth Law, told The New York Times in June: “Thousands of traumatized children are lingering in massive detention sites on military bases or convention centers, many relegated to unsafe, unsanitary conditions.”

That’s why there is growing outrage about the continuation of Title 42 as a deportation mechanism, used to keep immigrants out of the country by Donald Trump. President Biden promised to end it, but is now allowing it to remain in place indefinitely.

In a letter to the White House, more than 100 groups urged the president to rescind Title 42 expulsions charging that it violates U.S. refuge law and treaties and endangers people seeking protection at the U.S.-Mexican border According to Border Report in Texas, the expulsions are not based on science and expose people being held to violence in Mexico.

Title 42 is one of 50 titles within the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations established in 1944 to move quarantine authority to the public health sector, but it was sometimes used to control immigration using public health as a rationale.

Well before the COVID pandemic, Donald Trump’s adviser Stephen Miller suggested applying the code to close the border to asylum seekers, despite being told by lawyers they lacked the legal authority. Human Rights Watch argues “the expulsion policy is illegal and violates human rights,” and adds that “U.S. law gives asylum seekers the right to seek asylum upon arrival in the United States, even if seekers arrive without inspection prior authorization. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is legally required to conduct screenings to ensure they do not expel people who need protection.”

Yet since March 2020, CBP has carried out almost 643,000 expulsions using Title 42, without conducting required screenings, thus committing illegal “turnbacks.” In November, a federal district court blocked use of Title 42 in the case of unaccompanied minors, but by the time the Biden administration vowed to end it, more than 13,000 children had been expelled.

Here’s the rub. These kids aren’t entering the U.S. with COVID. They get it once they are held in detention, because of overcrowding and unhygienic conditions in HHS and CBP facilities. Some children have died in detention.

Along with children, pregnant women, some in labor, have been expelled, along with LGBT people, who are particularly vulnerable to violence — even since President Biden took office, according to Human Rights Watch.

That agency also states that “The Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the U.S. is a party, prohibit expulsions or returns in circumstances where people would face a substantial risk of torture or exposure to other ill-treatment. Also, under U.S. law and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refuges, to which the U.S. is party, the United States may not return asylum seekers to face threats to their lives or freedom without affording them an opportunity to apply for asylum and conducting a full and fair examination of that claim.” Nevertheless, by February this year, CBP had carried out more than 520,000 expulsions, according to the American Immigration Council.

Let’s be clear. No one risks their lives or suffers the unimaginable hardships of migration without compelling reasons that include crushing poverty, criminal gangs that kill people and abduct their children, devastating violence, hopelessness and more. (If you want to know what the journey is really like, read "Disquiet" by Zulfu Livaneli, or "The Mediterranean Wall" by Louis-Philippe Dalembert.)

The United Nations holds that asylum-seeking children should never be detained. And still they come by the hundreds of thousands. That’s why the ACLU is moving forward with a lawsuit that seeks to lift the public health order for migrant families and unaccompanied children. As Lee Gelernt, ACLU’s lead lawyer says, “Time is up” for dealing with this human rights catastrophe.

The kids cutting themselves as they weep couldn’t agree more.

Elayne Clift writes from Saxtons River, Vt. She can be reached via www.elayne-clift.com

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