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Politics

There is an emergency at the border, but it's not what Trump says it is

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- President Trump insists that there is an emergency at the border. Yes, there are plenty of terrible and sickening emergencies involving immigrants that demand immediate attention. But these are not the issues that Trump is focusing on.

Take, for instance, the stunning recent report by Axios that there have been nearly 6,000 complaints of sexual abuse of unaccompanied minors in the custody of the U.S. government in the past four years. These complaints, provided to Axios last week by Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., were made to both the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Deutch told a House hearing on migrant family separations that these accusations detail "an environment of systemic sexual assaults by staff on unaccompanied children," which amounted to an average of "one sexual assault by HHS staff on an unaccompanied minor per week."

The documents from fiscal year 2015 allege that adults in positions of authority over young migrants groped them, asked for sexual favors, sexually humiliated them in front of others or showed them pornography on smartphones. The allegations also include reports against foster parents with whom the children were placed while awaiting progress on their cases.

Many of these complaints are classified as having not been investigated at all, but others reflect that the person who was accused resigned or was removed from his or her position after the allegation was reported. Some workers were reinstated after allegations against them were determined to be unfounded.

Though the criteria and procedures for investigations into such allegations are made clear in Health and Human Services policy statements, the fidelity with which such probes are undertaken has been unclear.

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This is how Cmdr. Jonathan White, an HHS representative, found himself in front of a congressional subcommittee late last month to answer why the information had been delivered to Congress buried in a data dump, without explanation.

White's initial response seemed to focus on pointing out that it was not HHS staff, but outside contractors, who were alleged to commit most of the abuses -- as if that made a difference to the children involved.

And these complaints, you must remember, are just the cases of people who were able and willing to report the terrible things that happened to them in what amount to perilous circumstances.

"In detention, it is very difficult to access channels to report abuse," said Victoria Lopez, a senior staff attorney at the Washington-based ACLU National Prison Project. "People who are in immigration detention are navigating a legal system that is incredibly complex to begin with. And they are often separated from their families -- their communities -- and they are under a great deal of stress."

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