“If they come for her child in the morning…”: Detained/Incarcerated Children in the time of COVID-19

Photo Credit: Dignidad Rebelde


            Institutions detaining unaccompanied refugee minors amount to a million-dollar business model each year and a billion-dollar federal budget. These institutions follow a penal model, are locked away on monitored entry and exit, and have controlled movement inside. With few exceptions, children are removed from the public when institutionalized in these “shelter” settings and have monitored phone calls and visits. Although the level of scrutiny and harshness may vary across staff, it is innately a physical structure that perpetuates and sustains power and punishment (i.e. separation from family) and their day-to-day operations remain hidden from the public.[1]

            Multiple news sources across the country have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19 in shelters for unaccompanied children, which are mandated and overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a federal agency. Yet, due to underreporting and delayed testing, the actual number of cases in U.S. shelters may be unknown to the public. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been swift to create a shadow quasi-quarantine detention mechanism that will continue to detain undocumented people and unaccompanied children and will operate without access to legal representation. Legal advocates argue that this form of quarantine and expulsion at the border violates refugee protections. An ongoing lawsuit and multiple legal organizations in the US have urged judges to release unaccompanied children. Political groups that have historically advocated for liberal approaches in border security and reform, in an unprecedented move, are calling for the immediate release of immigrants in detention as a result of the spread of COVID-19.  This push to release immigrants from detention by political groups appears to be in response to the spread of the virus, without joining the call to abolish the carceral system and its proxies. 

            The federal architecture that ensures children are transferred from Border Patrol Custody into a “shelter” setting is cumbersome. “Care” of unaccompanied immigrant children in the U.S. is controlled by federal policies established in the early 1990s.[2]  Detention for said children has been outsourced to grantees amounting to a billion-dollar industry spread amongst a handful of “non-profit” shelters in the US.[3] In addition to children travelling unaccompanied, it is reported that at least 2,654 children were separated from their parents along the US-Mexico border between 2018-19 due to Trump’s “Zero Tolerance Policies;” these policies themselves created “unaccompanied” children to place in shelters.  In the summer of 2018, a federal judge ordered a stop to the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy of separating children from their parents in a lawsuit filed on behalf of parents by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).[4] In 2019, delays by the government to comply with this order included the need to create statistical models as well as losing files for separations conducted in “pilot” separation programs along the border.[5]  Moreover, in 2011, Race Forward reported that at least 5,100 children in the U.S. have been placed in foster care and some were placed for adoption as a result of their parents being placed in immigration detention or deported. Eight years ago, they anticipated that 15,000 more children would suffer the same fate if nothing changed.[6]

            Now more than ever, as political organizing gains momentum to release children from “shelters”, it is imperative to understand that children in detention facilities and shelters for unaccompanied children are pawns in a punishment tactic. Indeed, unaccompanied child migration is part of the larger capitalist order that promotes and sustains undocumented immigration, displacement, and separation.  Rather, the wrongdoing and social ill falls on the Trump administration, who should be held accountable for creating cruel policies that have separated children from their parents and ensnared them in the detention or adoption systems. Indeed, immigrant detention centers and their proxy, unaccompanied shelters, mirror the privatized prison model, created and sustained by a for-profit caste system.[7]

            Although critical scholars have written and brought to light the deplorable conditions of privatized detention centers for adults[8], less is known about shelters for unaccompanied children. The small monopoly of “non-profit” agencies that receive grants to operate these shelters argue that they are keeping unaccompanied children safe, an alternative to Border Patrol detention, and away from immigration traffickers. Yet, in recent years, ongoing lawsuits due to the mistreatment of children by staff have created outrage over the treatment children receive while in these institutions.  Lawsuits and criminal investigations have included allegations of physical abuse (punching and choke-holding)[9], video footage of children being dragged[10], and a criminal sexual abuse case where it is alleged that a staff member exposed child victims to HIV.[11] Rather than question how these “shelters” are necessary alternatives to Border Patrol detention, it behooves us to question the replication of harm within these institutions and how they degrade the human dignity of unaccompanied children with impunity.

It is unknown to the public at this time how COVID-19 will exacerbate the harm already done to families impacted by the child detention apparatus. However, the present time of isolation due to quarantine presents new possibilities to create networks that cultivate solidarity, support, and reflection with/for parents and caregivers across prison walls—whether this be through online organizing, through letter-writing, and most recently in car protests (caravans) calling for the liberation of all prisoners and detainees. Abolitionists, many of them mothers and caregivers, and child advocates, are finding creative ways to organize for the release of unaccompanied children currently detained in communities across the US. It is imperative to ground this present struggle in abolition and not merely as a temporary intervention due to COVID-19.

I conclude with James Baldwin’s brilliant words in his letter to Angela Davis, which sent a crying ethos for solidarity: “for, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”[12] Let us cling to these words of solidarity with fervor and urgency and be reminded that if they come for her/their child in the morning, they will come for ours in the night. There is ample evidence on the system of separating children and disappearing parents.[13]  We are only beginning to scratch the surface of its known impact.[14]

The spread of COVID 19 has only made more visible the egregious act of institutionalizing children. Thus, this time of reflection can be used to imagine new possibilities, for family reunification, kinship, and community-care, outside of any system that mirrors the existing punishment system. We are not to forget that parenting and caregiving is the greatest political project with infinite possibilities for freedom and new world-making.

Michelle Rascon-Canales is a PhD student in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Arizona. She worked as a social worker for seven years with undocumented children and families and left the field to interrogate the role of capitalism in shaping the intersection of immigration law and child welfare. She holds a Master of Social Work and a Master of Human Development. Michelle was raised on both sides of the US-Mexico border in a family that cultivated love and resiliency within and despite the carceral system.


[1] Susan Terrio, Whose Child am I? Unaccompanied, Undocumented Children in U. S. Immigration Custody, (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014).

[2]Agency for Children and Family Services (ACFS), 2019 Fact Sheet Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Program. October 31, 2019 https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/unaccompanied-alien-children-program-fact-sheet-10-2019.pdf.

[3] Kim Barker, Nicholas Kulish, and Rebecca Ruiz, “He’s Built an Empire, With Detained Migrant Children as the Bricks,” The New York Times, December 2, 2018. See also, Kim Barker, Nicholas Kulish, and Rebecca Ruiz, “His Job: Running Shelters for Young Migrants. His Pay: $3.6 Million,” The New York Times, July 15, 2019.

[4] American Civil Liberties Union, “Family Separation: By the Numbers” 2018 https://www.aclu.org/issues/immigrants-rights/immigrants-rights-and-detention/family-separation

[5] American Immigration Council, “Falling Through the Cracks: The Impact of Immigration Enforcement on Children Caught Up in the Child Welfare System,” https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/falling-through-cracks

[6] Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, “Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System,” November 2, 2011 https://www.raceforward.org/research/reports/shattered-families?arc=1

[7] Michelle Alexander, “The Injustice of This Moment Is Not an ‘Aberration” The New York Times, Jan. 17, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/17/opinion/sunday/michelle-alexander-new-jim-crow.html See also, Carlos Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants (New York City: The New Press, 2019).             

[8] Megan Carney. “Border Meals: Detention Center Feeding Practices, Migrant Subjectivities, and Questions on Trauma.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 13(4): 32-46, 2013. See also, Megan Carney. “Sickness in the Detention System: Syndemics of Mental Distress, Malnutrition, and Immigration Stigma in the United States.” Stigma Syndemics: New Directions in Biosocial Health, Lerman, S., Ostrach, B, and Singer, M. (eds.). (Landham: Lexington Press, 2018).

[9] Jeff Gammage, “For agencies like VisionQuest, holding migrant children brings millions of dollars,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 19, 2019. https://www.inquirer.com/news/immigration-migrant-children-trump-vision-quest-detained-philly-20190419.html?fbclid=IwAR3VeiuKQbeII0URN3gmDK1br57YViZy4Z3dpYGmZKccdCgKD4KSU_aGNA8

[10] The Guardian, “Arizona shelter under fire as videos said to show rough handling of migrant kids.” https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/dec/31/arizona-shelter-immigrant-children-southwest-key

[11] Department of Justice CR-17-1152-PHX-SPL (District Court of Arizona, February 1, 2019).

[12] James Baldwin. “An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis” in If They Come in the Morning… ed. by Angela Y. Davis, 19-23(Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2016).

[13] American Immigration Council, “Falling Through the Cracks: The Impact of Immigration Enforcement on Children Caught Up in the Child Welfare System,” December 12, 2012, https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/falling-through-cracks.

[14] Colleen Kraft, “Separating parents from their kids at the border contradicts everything we know about children’s welfare,” Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2018. The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), has resoundingly criticized the Trump administrations parent-child separation policy calling it “nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse” as it will produce irreparable long-term consequences.

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