Jurisprudence

Trump’s Tent Cities Are on the Verge of Killing Immigrant Children

A small child plays in front of a bunch of tents set up on a cement area near a bridge.
The tent camp set up by asylum-seekers next to the bridge to the U.S. in Matamoros, Mexico, seen on Dec. 9. John Moore/Getty Images

On this week’s episode of Amicus, Slate’s podcast about the Supreme Court, Dahlia Lithwick was joined by Kristin Clarens, an attorney with Project Adelante, a group of multidisciplinary professionals, including lawyers, doctors, ministers, and psychologists, working across the country to help mobilize and concentrate support for asylum-seekers at the border. A transcript of the interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, follows.

Dahlia Lithwick: Can you just start by explaining what it is that you do and how as a lawyer you were able to kind of amble in and out of border facilities, detention facilities?

Kristin Clarens: People who previously would have been detained [in the U.S.] are now living in sort of makeshift refugee camps on the Mexico side of the border because of the “Remain in Mexico” policy. So now it’s incredibly easy to amble in and out, as easy as it is for the cartel members and other organized criminals who are circulating in these camps.

The Remain in Mexico policy, the Migrant Protection Protocols, is just about a year old. Can you describe what the world was like before it, what the world has been like since?

The estimates are that there are around 3,000 people [in the tent camp in Matamoros] living just in squalor and in tents, and that 80 percent of them are families with young children. A year ago, in the Rio Grande Valley, most of those people would come to the United States either after asking for permission at a port of entry or after crossing without permission and they would be apprehended, put into one of the temporary facilities that so many of us have seen on the news with the kids in cages and the very overcrowded conditions, lack of sanitation and medical care. After that, the families and young kids were sent to longer-term detention centers where many of us, many lawyers who speak Spanish, have worked across the country.

As of June or July of this year, the United States government started implementing something that they call, I think very ironically, the Migrant Protection Protocols, which is a policy guideline that says that border patrol agents are able to return asylum-seekers to Mexico for the duration of their immigration hearings. So now an asylum-seeker who comes up from Central America arrives in these incredibly sketchy and stressful border towns, asks for asylum at the port of entry, and after a quick trip to one of the cage facilities, they are sent back into the streets of Mexico.

That moment where they’re shoved back into Mexican territory from the U.S. officials is an incredibly vulnerable one. It’s kind of like bad guys lurking on the sides.

Now that you’re looking at the tent cities in Mexico, what kinds of things are you seeing, what kinds of legal aid are you able to provide if you are in Matamoros trying to help?

The legal aid that we’re able to provide at this point is becoming so much more limited because the statistics out now are that 0.1 percent of asylum-seekers who have their cases heard in the MPP courts—many of whom have valid claims, who would have succeeded with time and due process and legal support—0.1 percent are succeeding. Nothing has changed with respect to the nature of the cases—single women who have been persecuted specifically because they’re vulnerable in their home countries by gangs and by other types of organized crime. They’re incredibly vulnerable living in these—it’s just like a tent, the kind of tent that you would take to go camping in the woods in the summer. Except for single women—sometimes pregnant with young children with no other form of support, no network whatsoever—living for months at a time in freezing cold conditions in rain and in superhot conditions the next day, just incredibly exposed on every single level.

The circumstances change almost weekly with respect to the parameters and expectations, the due process provided in the MPP camp, and also, with respect to just the feasibility of [the legal support] we can offer as the numbers of people on the ground grow and the backlog increases in the MPP courts.

The camp facility where people are sort of constrained physically has somewhere between 2,600 and 3,000 people in it at any given day, and it’s growing. But the total number of people who’ve been returned to Mexico under MPP is closer to 68,000. So only a small fraction of the people who need legal services are even visible at this point.

On the ground and at least at Matamoros, people don’t have enough showers, they don’t have enough food. There’s rampant illness. I mean, you are seeing kids with tremendous medical and nutritional and other needs that are not getting that.

There’s sort of a group that’s come onto the scene over the past month that’s providing mobile health care via a clinic and also a humanitarian support to try and improve the shelters. They’re all volunteer based. It’s kind of all of us rolling up our sleeves and trying to figure out the best way to get support in there. But it’s subject essentially to the whims of the Mexican government. At any point, this could be shut down, or relocated, or people could just be forced to scatter. You just don’t know how things are going to unfold when the United States government’s policies might be enjoined, or when the Mexican government may decide that it can no longer tolerate these large refugee camps.

The Mexican government initially restricted humanitarian groups’ access to sort of building things like toilets and showers and did so themselves in Matamoros. But the facilities that they built were really not adequate. They have showers that are not linked to any sort of drainage systems so there’s just big puddles of disgusting water that smelled bad and it’s just really kind of dehumanizing. Prior to the existence of the showers though, people were bathing in the river, which is contaminated with human waste, and people were getting sick and these awful skin infections all over. Little kids were swimming in the same place where little kids were also vomiting and having diarrhea. It’s just kind of a recipe for humanitarian crisis, within 100 feet of an American city.

You’ve been dealing this week with a critically ill child.

It’s really difficult for people who could die at any minute of their illnesses to get medical care in Matamoros for a variety of reasons. It’s hard for them to get around. It’s a scary city and it’s not safe. And so, this past week, we heard about several more critically ill migrants waiting at the tent city, including a 7-year-old who had, I think it can best be described as, sort of a breach in her abdominal wall.

So her fecal matter was leaking out and kind of reinfecting her, kind of getting reabsorbed by parts of her body as she wasn’t able to access clean water or water at all, to drink or to bathe herself to prevent just massive infection that could really quickly turn to a life-and-death situation. So, we did the best we could. I’ve been on the bridge trying to cross with people and been kind of mistreated and treated aggressively by the Border Patrol agents, and I know how scary and hard that is. I can’t imagine having gotten that experience as a 7-year-old girl who has to wear a diaper because her stomach is no longer able to contain her intestines. Fortunately, she was able to cross after, I think, a collective eight or nine hours waiting on the bridge and advocating and negotiating with Border Patrol. She was able to get across and get to the hospital on Tuesday night.

I had to try to twist your arm to get you to come talk about her story, because nobody died so it feels like nobody is going to care?

That’s the sense that I get in trying to focus attention on this in such a stressful time in America. It seems scary. Our government is unstable and stressful right now, and at the same time, these incredible egregious human rights violations are happening at our Southern border. And it’s like, how do we cut through this noise and really stand up for the weakest people that our country is negatively impacting right now? And I don’t have those answers, but we keep wondering, how many 7-year-old girls would need to die for this to be something that would get in the headlines and stay in the headlines for a day or two?

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