In 1998, I wrote a book about a man who, as a child, had spent 10 years in a New York City orphanage. He was only nine years old and at the very bottom of the pecking order in 1929, when, with 1,000 other children, he entered the gray anonymity of the orphanage.
Many, many years later, the scars and the tortures of his years there still told in his face and in everything else about him. As an old man, he told me, “I remember being slapped and beaten. I remember nights when a nine-year-old cringed in his bed, praying that he wouldn’t be hurt again. I remember indignities to my person, episodes of stark hopelessness, years of futility and periods of depressing isolation.
“The pain of those years can still rise up in an instant — and could frequently, 20, 40, 60 years later — a shattered lifetime after the injuries; the original tears still well up and come back again when something unconnected makes me think back to that time. The pain of those years has followed me all the days of my life: Pain of loss. Pain of separation. Pain of loneliness. And pain of wanting love but being unloved.”
I thought of that man’s experiences and his pain as I was writing this column.
“Hey, you! Get up!” The Trump administration has been rousing hundreds of immigrant children in the middle of the night and loading them onto buses for cross-country trips through the frightening darkness to a barren tent city on a sprawling piece of parched West Texas desert.
The government has taken them, abruptly and without warning, from shelters spread across the nation from New York to Kansas, in fact, more than 13,000 of them in recent months. Only a few weeks ago we thought that the number of children who had not been reunited with their parents was about 500, and, because of court orders, that number had been resolved.
But now come reports that the Trump administration has been erecting this huge array of tents in the scorching desert at Tornillo, Texas, 35 miles southeast of El Paso. The mass reshuffling of these children, carted about in the night as if they were animals, has actually been underway since June and shows no signs of slowing. Hundreds of children are arriving at the camp in Tornilla every week, totaling more than 1,600 so far. The sand-colored tents have a capacity to hold 3,800 children.
The last-minute midnight moves are standard practice now, because otherwise, custodians fear, the children would try to escape. For the same reason, children are given little advance warning that they will be moved.
Until this year, most undocumented children being held by federal immigration authorities had been housed in private foster homes or shelters, sleeping two or three to a room. They were getting formal schooling and had regular visits with legal representatives assigned to their immigration cases. Staff members often weep when they learn of the move, fearing what will be in store for the children who were in their care.
Inside the rows of tents in Tornillo, children in groups of 20, separated by gender, sleep in lined-up bunks, as if they were in a military boot camp. There is no school and little access to legal services. The camp operates like a grim prefab city of pop-ups, with portable toilets and air-conditioning in the scorching heat.
In huge internment camps like Tornillo, children’s problems — like the pain and fear of the New York City orphan I wrote about — get lost in the crowd. Like him, they feel separated and terrified, traumatized, abused and neglected by those in charge. Terribly, they are attempting — and sometimes succeeding — at suicide.
With Trump and his henchmen totally blind to human rights, it’s easy to suppose that the scandal of these children and their treatment will go down in American history as a major atrocity, along with slavery and the desert camps that jailed Japanese-Americans during World War II (for which the U.S. government has apologized).
(Bomboy has taught for more than 30 years in colleges and universities and has been a Ford Foundation Fellow at the University of Chicago and in Washington, D.C.)