OUR CON­CEN­TRA­TION CAMPS: AN OPEN LET­TER

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - To the Ed­i­tors: (a full list of the sig­na­to­ries is avail­able on­line at ny­books.com/camps)

In Tornillo, Texas, in rows of pale yel­low tents, some 1,600 chil­dren who were force­fully taken from their fam­i­lies sleep in linedup bunks, boys sep­a­rated from the girls. The chil­dren, who are be­tween the ages of thir­teen and sev­en­teen, have lim­ited ac­cess to le­gal ser­vices. They are not schooled. They are given work­books but they are not obliged to com­plete them. The tent city in Tornillo is un­reg­u­lated, ex­cept for guide­lines from the Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices. Phys­i­cal con­di­tions seem hu­mane. The chil­dren at Tornillo spend most of the day in air-con­di­tioned tents, where they re­ceive their meals and are of­fered recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties. There are three work­ers for ev­ery group of twenty chil­dren. The chil­dren are per­mit­ted to make two phone calls per week to their fam­ily mem­bers or spon­sors, and are made to wear belts with their emer­gency con­tacts writ­ten on them.

How­ever, the chil­dren’s psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tions are any­thing but hu­mane. At least two dozen of the chil­dren who ar­rived in Tornillo were given just a few hours’ no­tice in their pre­vi­ous de­ten­tion cen­ter be­fore they were taken away—any longer than that, ac­cord­ing to one of the work­ers at Tornillo, and the chil­dren may have pan­icked and tried to es­cape. Be­cause of these cir­cum­stances, the chil­dren of Tornillo are in­evitably sub­jected to emo­tional trauma. After their re­lease (the date of which has not yet been set­tled), they will cer­tainly be left with emo­tional scars, and it’s hard to imag­ine they could have any but the harsh­est feel­ings about a coun­try that con­demned them to this un­just im­pris­on­ment. The work­ers at the Tornillo camp, which was ex­panded in Septem­ber to a ca­pac­ity of 3,800, say that the longer a child re­mains in cus­tody, the more likely he or she is to be­come trau­ma­tized or en­ter a state of de­pres­sion. There are strict rules at such fa­cil­i­ties: “Do not mis­be­have. Do not sit on the floor. Do not share your food. Do not use nick­names. Do not touch an­other child, even if that child is your her­man­ito or her­manita [younger si­b­ling]. Also, it is best not to cry. Do­ing so might hurt your case.” Can we imag­ine our own chil­dren be­ing forced to go with­out hug­ging or be­ing hugged, or even touch­ing or shar­ing with their lit­tle brothers or sis­ters?

Fed­eral of­fi­cials will not let re­porters in­ter­view the chil­dren and have tightly con­trolled ac­cess to the camp, but al­most daily re­ports have fil­tered through to the press. Tornillo is part of a gen­eral at­mos­phere of re­pres­sion and per­se­cu­tion that threat­ens to get worse. The US govern­ment is de­tain­ing more than 13,000 mi­grant chil­dren, the high­est num­ber ever; as of last month, some 250 “ten­der age” chil­dren aged twelve or un­der had not yet been re­united with their par­ents. Re­cently, the pres­i­dent has vowed to “put tents up all over the place” for mi­grants.

This gen­er­a­tion will be re­mem­bered for hav­ing al­lowed con­cen­tra­tion camps for chil­dren to be built in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” This is hap­pen­ing here and now, but not in our names.

Rabih Alamed­dine, Jon Lee An­der­son, Mar­garet At­wood, Paul Auster, An­drea Ba­jani, Alessan­dro Bar­icco, Elif Ba­tu­man, Neil Bis­soon­dath, José Bu­rucúa, Gio­vanna Calvino, Em­manuel Car­rère, Javier Cer­cas, Christo­pher Cerf, Roger Chartier, Michael Cun­ning­ham, Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple, Robert Darn­ton, Deb­o­rah Eisen­berg, Mona El­ta­hawy, Ál­varo En­rigue, Richard Ford, Ed­win Frank, Garth Green­well, Va­le­ria Luiselli, Al­berto Manguel, Maaza Mengiste, and fifty oth­ers

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