Bearing witness to a war against detained children

Nearly 70 videos of detainee testimony serve as evidence of crimes committed against immigrant children

Published December 16, 2020 3:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump (Chip Somodevilla/ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Chip Somodevilla/ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on Capital & Main.

Last year Elora Mukherjee described for the House Committee on Oversight and Reform what she witnessed at the migrant detention center in Clint, Texas. "I saw children who were dirty. They could not wash their hands with soap because none was available," the Columbia University law professor said. "Many had not brushed their teeth for days. They were wearing the same clothes they had on when they crossed the border." The same day of Mukherjee's testimony, Vice President Mike Pence declared that the two Border Patrol facilities he had visited in Texas were "providing care that every American would be proud of."

Mukherjee has clocked hundreds of hours recording interviews of families and children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. Her testimony before Congress was reinforced by their stories, which she collected a month prior with a team of lawyers and a doctor at the border detention centers at Clint and Ursula. Lee Sunday Evans, the artistic director of Waterwell, a New York theater company, later assembled a group of lawyers, activists and prominent public figures to video record readings of the transcripts.

The migrant children's accounts are now part of The Flores Exhibits, an audiovisual narrative project conceived and directed by Lee and produced in partnership with the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. Nearly 70 videos exist as narrative-based advocacy and serve as powerful evidence of human rights violations. Speakers read out transcripts that were redacted to protect the interviewee's identities, and their distress is palpable on camera.

"Two hours after we crossed [the river], we met border patrol and they took us to a very cold house," read Jeff Chase, a former immigration judge, as he scanned the declaration of a 16-year-old mother.

"We slept on mats on the floor, and [they] gave us aluminum blankets. They took away our baby's diapers, baby formula and all of our belongings," he continued. "I am frightened, scared and sad," declared another interviewee who was 5 years old. David Gomez, the president of Hostos Community College read his transcript: "I've had a cold and cough for several days. I have seen no doctor and I've not been given any medicine." The camera lingered on each speaker for a few extra seconds at the end, catching the fleeting but tense moment as the full meaning of the story washed over them.

The Flores Exhibits are named for the Flores Settlement Agreement of 1997, a federal class-action lawsuit that won immigrant children basic health care and privacy rights. The ruling also declared that unaccompanied minors could not be detained for more than 20 days, and a 2015 revision by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the Flores requirements applied to children apprehended with their parents as well.

But in August 2019, the Trump administration announced its plans to scrap the Flores agreement. Moreover, the White House wanted to replace the 20-day cap with "an indefinite limit, as well as creating detention centers without court oversight that can be licensed by third-party agencies contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement," stated a timeline created by the exhibit organizers. Soon, 20 states united to sue the administration over the proposal. The Flores Exhibits act as proof of grave neglect towards migrant children and families.

The decision to use narration as advocacy wasn't a conscious one, said Evans. Rather, the testimonies themselves were natural stories. "We saw this overlap between the legal function of the testimonies—they were being used as evidence in a lawsuit—and the stories as windows into a very personal experience of each of these young people who… fight for their survival and endure extremely difficult, degrading, dehumanizing conditions," she told Capital & Main.

Evans credited artistic influence to Marshall Ganz, a well-known public policy lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. Ganz highlighted personal stories as a cornerstone to the foundations of grassroots organization and movement building. "Theater is often at its best when it is not didactic, or presents one clear indisputable morality," said Evans. "But these…stories can complicate and change our ideas about what is right and wrong when we have mainstream political debates about immigration."

Waterwell utilized its partnerships to spread the word about the exhibits. Due to the onslaught of COVID-19, live audience screenings were swapped for webinars conducted through Zoom. One Waterwell partner, Church World Service (CWS), is a faith-based global network whose members help migrants and refugees find safe havens. Its East Coast Faith Community Organizer, Christine Baer, believes that storytelling heavily rooted in reality can shape people's minds in a robust way.

"Faith calls people to compassionate action," she said. "When we face the examples of injustice done against children, we need to reconcile with our faith and act in some way."

Rev. Noel Anderson, CWS's national grassroots coordinator, claimed that educating oneself is the greatest change a community can bring about at an individual level. Both he and Baer vouched for the impact of the exhibits' audiovisual style. "Usually you read such accounts. So watching them being read is powerful," said Baer. "When you have the story coming from the impacted people themselves, then you are able to create empathy," said Anderson. "When people hear those stories, they start to reflect. I'm a new father, and I guess I would also do the same thing: Flee to protect my family if our lives were threatened."

Zachary Marino, a University of Pennsylvania law student, was another partner who screened some of the videos as a panel discussion through the Penn Law Immigrant Rights Project. "It's hard to look away and even harder to not feel anger and compassion," he said.

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Beatriz Maya, the director of La Conexion, a Latinx immigrant-based organization, was responsible for drawing over 300 people in Bowling Green, Ohio, to view the exhibits. The group's interactive virtual screening, titled "Children in Captivity," focused on trauma as immigration policies. "2020 is a special year. We are facing a pandemic, police brutality and racism all at once. So, with all this happening, the issue of immigrant children has fallen off the radar," she said.

Many of the panel of narrators are themselves immigrants. Actress Morena Baccarin (GothamDeadpool) arrived in the U.S. as a Brazilian immigrant and was deeply influenced by her mother's women's rights activism. Her ongoing participation with the International Rescue Committee concerning the Venezuelan refugee crisis in Colombia is a precursor to her involvement with The Flores Exhibits as a speaker (Exhibit #18). "We recorded it twice or thrice because I couldn't get through it the first time," said Baccarin.

Her reaction to the transcript is quite visceral, and there are times when she took pauses to collect herself. "I kinda knew what I was in for," Baccarin said. "I remember thinking about the little things that the rest of us don't really wonder about: not having a place to shower."

Baccarin's assigned transcript narrated the account of a 17-year-old mother from Honduras who was separated from her husband. Her baby had thrown up on herself, and there was no place to clean up. "Being a mother myself, experiencing that through someone else's eyes was really awakening," said the actress.

Baccarin and the organizers and partners of The Flores Exhibits are bracing themselves for further damage as the Trump administration races to set more immigration policies before Inauguration Day. As recently as two days before Thanksgiving, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) expelled 33 Guatemalan children who came to the U.S. without their parents, on the same day a federal judge issued an order against it.

But, said Evans, "The new administration will spark new conversations about immigration. We will be keeping our antenna up about how these stories can be a useful resource for people who are engaging in this issue. Essentially, we want the Biden administration to end a human rights problem with a humanitarian solution."

Copyright 2020 Capital & Main

By Bulbul Rajagopal

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