History Accounts for the Children

By Joe Carvalko | 18 April 2020
Church and State

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

Before the COVID-19 public health emergency, it was impossible to keep up with the catalog of bioethical issues needing attention in this country.1 The pandemic has not only underscored the earlier entries, but has added more than a few, some of which need to be urgently dealt with. I’d like to draw attention to one, the incarceration of children during the current pandemic.[1] On March 29, after 4 children tested positive for COVID-19, a Los Angeles federal judge ordered the government to “make continuous efforts” to release them from custody. We cannot understate the obvious, that unless the Trump administration acts swiftly to release all immigrant children in its custody, they face the calamitous possibility of death.

The coarseness of American life can be measured by how we treat minorities and other groups at the lower end of the economic spectrum in respect to quality of life, and such things as healthcare, generally. As if living in different worlds, many of us remain ignorantly oblivious to those in our midst many whom suffer from a wide range of disease brought about by their occupations or a lack of resources sufficient to maintain a healthy lifestyle. We have long ignored these systemic problems and now find that in large numbers this segment of the population is unable to stave off the ravages of the virus that plagues us at this moment.

But, our ignorant obliviousness does not end there. We shut our eyes to the millions of incarcerated souls within our borders. These are the ones accused of a crime, but not yet tried and others convicted of economic, drug related, and violent crimes. Still others within these borders languish behind locked doors, neither accused nor found guilty of anything but exercising immigration conventions that have the force of U.S. law. Few of us let these lapses justice interfere with our daily lives. But, today we can’t simply whistle past the graveyard, because thousands of children face the specter of contracting COVID-19. They risk dying.

Whether we admit it or not, our government’s immigration policies condone an immoral callousness against migrant children. That we do not show greater outrage may be that it’s all part of the American way, that part of our fabric which allows a judicial and immigration system to put people behind bars in numbers that defy a reasonable explanation. For more than a generation, the United States has had the largest prison population in the world, currently about 2,150,000, the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world. Not included in this statistic are nearly 52,000 immigrants held in over 200 jails, prisons, and tents across the country—many privately owned. We also have the distinction of running the largest immigration detention system in the world. And among the people in this last group, again unlike any other country, we keep about 3,600 children in shelters operated by Office of Refugee Resettlement, and about 3,300 more at 3 detention centers operated by ICE, where they are held with their parents.

Immigrant advocates have tried to limit the government’s detention of children crossing the border, arguing that it weakens their long-term health. Now, comes coronavirus, which represents a threat to their immediate well-being. It’s especially distressing to learn that ICE in many instances has failed to provide adequate soap and sanitizers or introduce social distancing, a consequence of the overcrowded facilities. Setting aside the law, on strictly moral grounds, it leaves the administration no option, but to release these children into the custody of hundreds of families who eagerly wait to take them in. The Trump administration apparently refuses to move.

Denise Bell, a researcher at Amnesty International USA said: “We still don’t know enough about how this pandemic can affect children. Children are held … in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, without improved personal hygiene, physical distancing, appropriate medical care, or even COVID-19 testing. They are treated as an afterthought for prevention efforts, not as a part of smart and humane planning. …This treatment of children should make every single person in the United States sick to their stomach.”

On March 24, a number of NGOs called on eleven governors whose states have immigration detainees, and prevailed upon them to use their public health mandate to order federal immigration authorities to reduce their detainee occupancy capacity. Little or nothing appears to be happening. Similarly, on March 31, 2020, UN agencies on human rights, global health, migrants and refugees called for the release of migrants and asylum seekers, who were being held in cramped, unsanitary detention conditions — virtual Petri dishes for COVID-19.

In one area, the Trump administration has been decreasing detention. It’s been reported that detained migrants, large numbers of which have COVID-19, are being deported in violation of international law, back to their home countries, such as Guatemala, where they can potentially infect in-county populations. This month, Guatemalan officials claimed that 75% of the returned migrants tested positive for the virus in one flight, alone.

Many of our country’s early leaders, e.g., Washington and Jefferson owned slaves and broke up families willy-nilly. No one accuses Trump of these horrendous acts, but no one can in good conscience deny he has caused immigrants and asylum seekers to painfully suffer the separation of their children. One can only imagine one of these parents today, and the panic that runs through their every waking moment.

No respectable democratic leader in the world today would think that breaking up families and incarceration of their children would be morally acceptable or legal under international law. And, I’d like to believe that the thousands of churches and faith-abiding parishioners in this country would not tolerate incarcerating children for having committed no crime, unless one considers the love of a parent to bring his or her offspring to freedom as a crime, where the child now bears the complicity of the parent.

Inaction by the government during the current pandemic, although perhaps not motivated by bad intent, nonetheless will likely result in innocent children becoming horribly sick and even dying. Regardless of intention, we can’t let the status quo of keeping children detained in close quarters prevail. Otherwise, those who remain ignorantly oblivious will have to answer on some level. History has a way of accounting for how a society morally comports itself, even in times of a national emergency.


1 I am addressing distributive justice, the moral imperative to allocate heath care equitably, including situating someone in an environment that reduces the potential for acquiring a deadly disease.


[1] Judge Urges Release of Migrant Children After 4 Test Positive for Coronavirus in Detention, NYT, March, 29,2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/….

[2] Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020, March 24,2020, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/….

[3] Detained, How the US built the world’s largest immigrant detention system, September, 24, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/….

[4] Ibid, 1.

[5] The Flores settlement requires the federal government to do two things: to place children with a close relative or family friend “without unnecessary delay,” rather than keeping them in custody; and to keep immigrant children who are in custody in the “least restrictive conditions” possible. See, Flores agreement: Trump’s executive order to end family separation might run afoul of a 1997 court ruling, June 21, 2018, VOX, https://www.vox.com/2018/6/20/…; Also see, The History of Migrant Children Protection in America Started With Two Girls in Los Angeles, NYT, August 30,2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/20….

[6] Amid COVID-19 pandemic, authorities must release immigration detainees, April, 7, 2020, https://www.amnestyusa.org/reports/….

[7] Official Alleges The U.S. Has Deported Many COVID-19-Positive Migrants To Guatemala, April 15, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/….

Joseph Carvalko is an American technologist, academic, lawyer, and writer. He has authored 9 books and numerous journal and magazine articles. Currently he is an Adjunct Professor of Law at Quinnipiac University, School of Law; Chairman, Technology and Ethics Working Research Group, Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Yale University; member, IEEE, Society on Social Implications of Technology; summer faculty member, Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Yale University; member Amnesty International, USA.

Carvalko’s 2015 novel, DEATH BY INTERNET deals with the matter of whether a society is compassionate or not. His protagonist is a modern day Socrates who in full view of millions determines to sacrifice his life if necessary, to answer Man’s capacity for mercy. The story plays out in a prison cell, where as an old man, awaiting his execution, he tells about his activities as a Indian activist and the years spent underground to avoid prosecution. Overtime he abandons any faith in a merciful god, and determines to answer the question whether there is an objective “empathy” or “cruelty” in the world. He devises a scheme to connect himself to the Internet and a suicide-machine, to provoke his audience to vote, whether he lives or dies, based on whether their social/political position reflects compassion, empathy or malice against the downtrodden.

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