By Brooke Trainum and Janet Haebler
As we celebrate America’s birthday and the freedoms we enjoy, recent headlines remind us that others’ have not been as fortunate. The July 4th holiday comes right after a federal judge’s order to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) addressing concerns in detention facilities holding refugees. On June 28th, a federal judge in Texas ruled that “CBP must permit health experts into detention facilities holding migrant children to ensure they’re ‘safe and sanitary’ and assess the children’s medical needs.” This order is only applicable in the El Paso and Rio Grande Valley regions, due to the subject of the lawsuit. Judge Dolly Gee gave the Trump administration a deadline of July 12th to report what they have done to correct the conditions. This ruling is on the heels of Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar stating in an interview shared by Politico that “the centers run by CBP were not good conditions for kids to be in.”
The situation at the border is complex in nature and for many that can lead to a feeling of helplessness and despair. ANA has repeatedly expressed concerns with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Congress, most recently via a June 2019 letter sent to DHS. Additionally, Congress recently passed emergency supplemental funding to help alleviate this situation. Given the complexities of this issue there was even disagreement within the political parties on how to address this crisis.
The reports coming from these detention facilities are unfathomable. There are two main government agencies that oversee refugee shelters, with both DHS and HHS each carrying a different mission. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within HHS is specifically responsible for unaccompanied minor children; however, it has been the facilities overseen by DHS and CBP that has made the news most recently as having unsafe, unsanitary, and inhumane conditions.
What many do not realize is the unacceptable conditions of border detention facilities is not new. Greater media attention has highlighted the situation. Accommodations erected decades ago were intended for single males, not families. The situation has been exacerbated by a backlog in the immigration court system. Under standard procedures, detention is intended to be for a short duration, not exceeding 72 hours, while claims for asylum are received and processed. Yet, it has been reported that in mid-2019, the average length of detention exceeded one week. In May and June 2019, between 14,000 and 18,000 people were held by CBP each night. And yet another confounding factor is that several of the detention facilities housing refugees are operated by private corporations who have contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
While many agree that immigration laws need to be reviewed and modernized, this is an issue where many Americans are split on the solution. Due to this divide, ANA has focused on the immediate issue of a humanitarian crisis affecting the health and well-being of those impacted at the border. As nurses, we have a duty through the Code of Ethics for Nurses to speak out and advocate for the human rights and health care needs of all, particularly the most vulnerable.