I’ve Been to Guantanamo. It’s No Place for Kids.

Over the last year, the country has been shocked by reports of the inhumane treatment of children and families in immigrant detention. Now, the Trump administration appears to be increasing the scope and severity of its immigrant detention scheme by potentially detaining immigrants at Guantanamo Bay.

News broke last week that the Defense Department awarded a $23 million dollar contract to construct a “Contingency Mass Migration Complex” at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station with capacity to detain 13,000 people and built to last “a minimum of 50 years.” In April, we also learned that the Department of Homeland Security considered sending migrant children to an old “dormitory facility” at Guantanamo.

I’ve been to Guantanamo. I visited in 2015 as an observer of the military commission proceedings, staying in a dusty tent barrack for a week. With a stunning landscape and ugly history, it is full of contradictions—like selling Mickey Mouse-Guantanamo Bay souvenirs in the gift shop, mere miles from where men have languished in detention without fair trials, or even charges, for more than a decade. I left with a pit in my stomach, unsettled by this deeply strange place. It has been a site of torture, where our country’s leaders have long embraced or tolerated injustice. It is certainly no place for children.

No child should grow up in jail, no matter where it is located. Studies show that kids in immigration detention suffer emotionally and physically, with traumatizing conditions including “sleep[ing] on cement floors,” “insufficient foods and water,” and “extremely cold temperatures.”

But sending kids to Guantanamo is uniquely dangerous. It’s easy to imagine the Defense Department restricting or totally denying journalists, lawyers, and human rights groups access to monitor or investigate, enabling officials to commits abuses with little risk of being discovered. Members of Congress, who’ve already been refused access to visit detention facilities on the mainland, may have little or no ability to conduct effective oversight at Guantanamo. Kids sent to Guantanamo might be put in expedited removal proceedings (deported without the opportunity see a judge) that we’ve explained “invite, and guarantee, error.” The Trump administration might argue they have no rights at Guantanamo at all.

Bottom line: there’s a serious risk the government could deny immigrants sent to Guantanamo a real opportunity to seek protection from return to persecution or torture—contradicting Congress’ intent, and their rights under US and international law.

History tells us that politicians might excuse or willfully turn a blind eye to abuses that happen at Guantanamo. For decades, multiple administrations have tried to treat it as a legal black hole, a place where the rights of non-citizens can be violated and bedrock principles of the U.S. legal system ignored. In 2002, the government sent hundreds of men there and tried to create a “battle lab” for experimental abuses, many of which amounted to torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Despite Supreme Court decisions making clear that Guantanamo is in fact not a legal black hole, more than a decade later politicians like Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) celebrate it as a place beyond the law. “As far as I’m concerned, every last one of [the detainees] can rot in Hell, but as long as they don’t do that they can rot in Guantanamo Bay,” Cotton told the Senate in a 2015 hearing. I was there, and I remember the room going silent at his words—but no senator condemned them. Despite years of advocacy by the ACLU and other groups, Guantanamo remains a place where the government can engage in unlawful conduct, outside of the public eye.

Guantanamo’s longer history helps explain why. In the 1990s, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted tens of thousands of people from Haiti and Cuba fleeing violence and human rights violations at sea. More than 45,000 people were taken to Guantanamo and held in tent cities.  In a striking parallel to today, hundreds of children were separated from their families, kept in inhumane conditions, and authorities had trouble keeping track of people in family units. Thousands of Haitian nationals were returned to Haiti despite having credible fears of persecution, forcing parents to leave their children behind.

By 1995 there were still more than 200 unaccompanied kids from Haiti languishing at Guantanamo, despite having relatives and other sponsors in the U.S. ready to welcome them. “The kids are isolated and fearful,” columnist Bob Herbert wrote. “They live in tents that tend to leak when it rains. They are ill-clothed (some do not even have shoes) and receive inadequate medical attention. Many of the youngsters are depressed and some have attempted suicide.”

Congress should not let the Trump administration repeat this terrible history. It should reject the White House’s $3.7 billion request for custody operations, and demand the administration consider alternatives to detention that have proven to be more cost-effective and humane.  

There’s a horrific American tradition of holding people at Guantanamo unlawfully. It’s long past time we bring it to an end and close Guantanamo for good.

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Anonymous

This is why I keep asking, what was that plane doing with 140 passengers and four pets coming from Guantanamo???
The plane skidded off the runway into the St. John's River, Jacksonville Florida while landing at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.
Who is flying around on government flights with pets? Who were the prisoners on board? Where did they go?

Anonymous

Guantanamo detention for children is good or just sent them back to their own countries and it solves their problem and America taxpayers problems with providing services to them.

Anonymous

FDR’s internment of U.S. citizens during War World Two was a war crime. FDR’s action violated the U.S. Constitution. Because FDR’s attorneys and executive branch were never criminally indicted or held accountable, it created an incentive for post-9/11 war crimes by Bush’s DOJ attorneys. Since Bush was never held accountable, it opened the door to Trump’s abuses. At some point shouldn’t we indict oath-sworn officials that betray their Oath of Office? If not, John Roberts, there is no deterrent-effect to minimize future war crimes.

Anonymous

Could the ACLU publish all the names of members of Congress that approved this?

Anonymous

When did these illegal alien children become America taxpayers problem ? They are leaving their countries because of gangs,abuse and no money in their families so they cannot claim asylum. What about American children who are homeless with their parents what about their needs? What about homeless children who are living on their own on the street? What about American children who are living in foster home? What about American children who are living with one or both parents in prison? Send them all back to their parents and their own countries. We don’t need them here because American children should come first. You can call me anything you like but the American children/citizens come FIRST.

Anonymous

Yes, feel free to help support homeless American children. Feel free to take some in and support them. Feel free to give to the breakfast and lunch programs at schools for American kids, I think you are all talk and doing absolutely nothing for these kids. Kids are kids, whether they are American, going to be American, or not American. I will challenge you to take in an American Family and take care of them. Your examples are not of those having asylum issues, your examples are for other reasons, addictions and crimes for the most part. Why not demand Trump administration stop cutting food programs for the poor, removing housing benefits, and providing low cost day care so parents can feed their kids? Yup. You need to step up to the plate.

Anonymous

I do give money to Salvation Army for program to benefit America citizens and children. I give to the homeless shelters and volunteer there. So what do you do for America children. Are a veteran did you fight or any of your families fight America freedom? I have families that fought since WW one and families that still fighting.

Anonymous

So it okay for illegal aliens living federal housing take from America citizens that are poor. So it is okay for illegal alien children to eat at school for free while taking away from America children? So it is ok for illegal aliens to medical care without paying for their care and America citizens have to pay higher cost? So it ok for illegal aliens to break the laws of USA and get away with it? So it is ok for illegal aliens children go to school free and take away from America children and taxpayers because they need help to catch up in their studies? So it is ok for illegal aliens to live in freedom that American men and women fought and die for? While they run with their tails between their legs and never fighting for their families.

mjgranger1

The US military detention operation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is NOT unlawful. If it were, it would not exist. You're frustrated at what you say is a "lack of transparency" because only the ICRC are given the access you desire, and they are sworn to secrecy and never make reports public. Of course they do this to maintain a neutral and purely humanitarian and non-political reputation, which keeps them safe and productive. You would compromise that for the sake of voyeurism. The truth is that none of the detainees ever held there were entitled to extra legal privileges, and even though they were not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, the US treats them within the "spirit of Geneva," as per Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense in 2002. Detainees are treated with dignity and respect (not torture), and they receive FREE Quran's, prayer rugs/beads, halal and special holy Muslim holiday meals, directions to Mecca, services of a US military Muslim chaplain, white robes, beards, call to prayer, world class health, dental and eye care, recreation, library services, video games, TV, DVD's, other entertainment and sports. 731 detainees have been RELEASED from Gitmo, and NONE have been beheaded, executed, blown up, hacked to death, dragged naked and lifeless through the streets, drowned or burned alive, all things our enemies have done to us and/or our allies. Your myths about Gitmo are fading in the light of REAL information. There is no moral comparison between Gitmo and how our enemies treat their captives. Sincerely, Montgomery J. Granger, Major, US Army, Retired; former ranking US Army Medical Department officer with the Joint Detainee Operations Group, Joint Task Force 160, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 2002. Author: Saving Grace t Guantanamo Bay: A Memoir of a Citizen Warrior."

Anonymous

So once again American taxpayers are footing the bills for people who are terrorized what a shame. I thought all Muslim were pure in heart but I guess not only American military are the good people.

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