The sudden ban on crayons from the visiting area at a Texas immigration detention facility for women and children might seem to be a harbinger of the Trump era.
After all, it is unconscionably cruel to deny momentary comfort and escape for already traumatized kids as their mothers consult with the volunteer lawyers who help them apply for asylum.
“Having children color and draw provides a distraction for children while their mothers relate incidents of trauma, violence, and abuse,” notes an open letter by the lawyers of the Karnes Pro Bono Project and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) to the officials who oversee the facility.
But the ban—which a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman terms “an alleged Crayon ban,” but is a ban nonetheless—was instituted at the Karnes family detention facility on Nov. 7. That was the day before the election whose outcome not even the winner foresaw.
What the pro bono lawyers and other volunteers who assist those held at Karnes only slightly jokingly call “Crayongate” in fact seems to be an example of how callous government can be even if the White House is occupied by a someone as human and humane as Barack Obama.
Just imagine what may come to pass with Donald Trump now ultimately in charge.
As things already were, the TV that ICE cites as an alternate diversion for crayon-deprived children in the Karnes visiting area has more often than not been tuned to the very channel that the Trump campaign chose for the two jumbo screens at his victory party on Election Night.
“Lot of times they have it on Fox News,” notes pro bono lawyer Barbara Hines.
While still under Obama, ICE had resolved to outlaw crayons in the Karnes visitors center because a few of the kids had expressed themselves beyond the borders of the paper. The lawyers’ letter says in response, “Treating a child’s color markings as ‘destruction of property’ is altogether inappropriate. And such markings are a cost that comes with the detention of children.”
In a statement, ICE noted Monday that crayons are permitted in other parts of the facility and sought to characterize the ban in the visiting area as a security issue.
“For the safety of the facility residents, donated items brought into the visitation area, including crayons, are prohibited,” ICE said.
But an email on the subject written this month by an ICE official at the facility says nothing about safety or security. It instead indicates that the ban “is an action resulting from crayons which RAICES staff/volunteers have given children which has caused property damage to the contractor.”
The contractor being the private, for-profit GEO Group. The firm has a $57 million contract to run the facility, which has the capacity for 800 mothers and children, some 90 percent of whom are eventually ruled eligible for asylum. ICE seems to have been particularly concerned about a table where a youngster apparently had been drawing a pumpkin at Halloween time with a marker.
At a Nov. 2 meeting, an ICE official showed a RAICES staffer a photo of orange marks on the tabletop. ICE described it as “defaced.” RAICES suggested that the marker must have bled through the paper and promised to take greater care in giving children markers.
ICE apparently provided no warning of an impending ban and does not seem to have invited possible solutions such as washable markers. ICE simply imposed the new rule on Nov. 7. Guards began thoroughly searching any materials volunteers brought into the facility.
“Looking for contraband,” reported Amy Fischer of RAICES. “The contraband being crayons and other art supplies.”
Yet when The Daily Beast inquired about the ban, ICE termed it an “alleged ban” and made no mention of defaced property or so much as a single orange mark on a tabletop.
Suddenly, it was all about security and safety, which suggests that ICE is already inclined toward Trumpian liberties with the truth before our new president takes office. ICE did say it is “currently installing a chalkboard wall for children to use in the visitation area.”
ICE added that along with TV, it provides books and toys for the children in the visiting area. ICE failed to mention that youngsters who use the toys are apparently subjected to a restriction that sounds like a kiddie version of Alcatraz; Mr. Rogers’s Super Max.
“Children may only play with toys in the visitation area on a small rug that measures approximately 9 feet by 5 feet,” the volunteer lawyers wrote in their open letter. “All of the children, regardless of how many or how old, must remain on this small rug in order to use the toys. They may not move a toy from this small space.”
The letter goes on: “For example, children are not allowed to roll a plastic toy, like a truck, off the rug. In fact, these children are reprimanded by GEO staff, sometimes harshly, if they do so. In response, children begin to cry and seek out their mothers in the midst of an interview with legal counsel.”
The letter adds: “Confining children to this small space also means that mothers must interrupt their interviews to tend to children who have moved off the mat and to explain to them these needless restrictions. GEO staff also often yell at children who use the toys in a manner that the staff deems inappropriate (such as knocking a plastic toy on the floor) or speaking loudly while playing. In short, children are not allowed to be children.”
As a result of the rug restrictions, the lawyers were hardly mollified by an assurance via email from ICE that it had “instructed GEO contractors to place additional toys/items for the children in the visitation area.”
The lawyers noted in the letter, “ICE’s response to the crayon ban that there will be more toys for the children on a small cramped rug is an unacceptable solution, especially since children are not allowed to bring toys into interview rooms.”
The situation was difficult enough even before the crayon ban. The childcare center at the facility closes at 5 p.m., while the lawyers hold consultations until 8 p.m. Some childcare workers are said to refuse children who are crying, as is liable to be the response of traumatized youngsters at the prospect of being separated from their mother.
The mothers who bring their children with them to the visiting area must then make a choice. Some take their children into the designated interview room. Others leave them in the larger visiting area.
“So they are not forced to listen to their mothers’ harrowing narratives nor witness their mothers’ fragile emotional states during these interviews,” the lawyers’ letter notes.
And these are children who themselves have been traumatized by those very experiences and further traumatized by the often harrowing journey to America, followed by time in a facility where they are confined with strangers and where the lights all go out at a given time and where they have to report multiple times a day for a kind of head count.
“They’re living in a place filled with people they don’t know, where their lives are regimented,” Hines said. “They’re sharing rooms with people they never met, another family.”
On Nov. 17, the guards grew even stricter. A lawyer left the room for a few minutes and came back to find that all the pens and highlighters had been confiscated from the mothers who had been using them.
“The guard on duty broadened the rule to say that no one of any age can color with any type of instrument,” the lawyers’ letter reports.
The letter asks: “Why can’t adults use writing implements to pass the time while they wait in visitation? Why can’t children use washable markers or colored pencils as a reasonable compromise? Why can’t children play with toys throughout the visitation area? “
GEO, for its part, denies that children are scolded if they play with toys other than on the rug.
“It’s simply not true,” said Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations at GEO, via email.
The pro bono lawyer Hines offers a convincing firsthand account of the toy restrictions.
“They’re not allowed to put the wheel of the truck on the floor; you have to keep it on the rug,” she told The Daily Beast on Monday. “They can’t pick it up and walk and show their mother the toy. They can’t move the toy to the table. They’re told they can’t do that and they don’t understand why.”
Hines reports that with the rug restriction, an adult cannot resolve a squabble between two kids by separating them.
“You can’t say to one child, ‘Take the truck and go play in a different corner,’” Hines said. “Not possible. “
Of the guards, Hines says that a number are seemingly decent folks who have no choice but to go along.
“Some of them are very nice, but they are required to enforce these rules,” she said. “They don’t make the rules.”
The legal consults can go as long as two hours, even longer if repeatedly interrupted when the mother has to tend to her child. Hines was until recently able to keep children occupied by inviting them to draw her a picture.
“I tell them, ‘Please draw me a picture, and I’m going to put it on my refrigerator,” she said. “I have a lot of pictures.”
One picture from the facility depicts a blue dinosaur rising up toward a bright sun. Another drawing shows three figures residing in a cheerful home whose garden features a single giant flower.
But that was before Crayongate.
We can only guess what comes next.