On the evening of Friday July 3, we became aware of a particular incident of our government’s systematic mistreatment of hundreds of young, captive children and their mothers. A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) noted that about 250 detained children were administered adult doses of the hepatitis A vaccine in an immigration detention camp in Dilley, TX. The agency was quick to minimize this mistake, immediately asserting that “no adverse reactions are expected.”
Yet, this flippant dismissal offers us little in the way of clarity – let alone explanation or empathy – and prompts us to ask: what exactly happened in Dilley? And why?
What is egregious about the vaccine issue is the complete disregard for the idea that these women have control of their own bodies or the bodies of their children. What is egregious about the vaccines is the rejection of the idea of consent.
- Aseem Mehtha
I am working to provide legal services with the CARA Project there, where nearly 2,000 children and mothers are incarcerated by the federal government after seeking asylum. How did asylum seekers get dosed with potentially harmful amounts of vaccine by the federal government? Here’s what we’ve been able to put together:
Last week, guards from Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a private prison company, entered the rooms of hundreds of mothers and children without warning between four and six a.m. They told the mothers that they and their children had important medical appointments. The mothers, in their bleary-eyed, barely-conscious state, objected: they had never asked for a medical appointment, their children were asleep, they didn’t understand why or for what they were being called. The CCA officials paid no attention to the women’s questions. Instead, the guards instructed them that they could take nothing with them and that they must immediately wake up their children and follow. The women followed; they had no other choice.
The guards refused to answer any questions as they marched the women and children, not to the medical clinic, but to the church.
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As they were pushed single file into the church, they came upon a scene without meaning: dozens of other women and children, lined up and waiting. For what? No one spoke to the women as they assumed their place in a snaking line. Children screamed and cried as the shock of the hour and crowded space overcame them. Eventually, rumors and whispers found their way to the back of the room, and the women learned that they were in line to receive injections. A suited man with a stack of papers found his way to the women and handed a packet to each woman, without a spoken word. The top of the packets were labeled with the names of diseases and had multiple check boxes: “Today, your child will be administered the following vaccinations,” the sheet informed them.
No one listened to their questions, no one listened to their pleas when after waiting for 3-4 hours, they tried to explain that their children had already had multiple vaccinations and there was no need for this. As each family reached the end of the line, they were beckoned to deposit their children in front of several individuals, some in suits and others in military uniforms. The women were told to prepare their children to be injected and were ignored when expressing their concerns and questions about the needles that were approaching their children, now restrained by these unknown staff. When their pleas were ignored, some responded by inserting themselves between the needle-holder and their child, and pulling the children’s clothing away to reveal a series of punctures from when their child had already been injected, just days before.
The women were not asked permission by these unknown people to touch – let alone stab – four to six needles into the flesh of their children. They were not told what was being inserted into their children’s blood stream. All of their knowledge was experiential: that anyone could do anything to them and their children at any point. And that they had no recourse.
What they learned, hours or days later, was that their two-year-old who had needles stuck into all four limbs, had become temporarily immobile. Or that their four-year-old was vomiting and refusing to eat. Given their previous vaccinations, some only days before, many of these children likely had overdoses of more than just the Hepatitis A, which the government admitted to. But according to the medical staff on site (the suited individuals had since disappeared), none of these afflictions were medical problems. Allegedly all of these problems were just a function of thirst — so the children should overcome their weakness by “drinking water.”
Why did this happen to 250 children and their mothers in Dilley, TX? Because the internment of 2,000 asylum-seeking women and children is premised on the belief that these individuals should be systematically denied agency. This isn’t just about a vaccination gone wrong. That trauma is merely an entry point. What is egregious about the vaccine issue is the complete disregard for the idea that these women have control of their own bodies or the bodies of their children. What is egregious about the vaccines is the rejection of the idea of consent. What is egregious about the vaccines is that a private prison corporation is profiting from the abuse and control of these innocent children and mothers. What is egregious about the vaccines is that ICE thinks that they can act with impunity.
That’s the story here. And it’s but a single thread in the entire soiled fabric of refugee internment camps.
Aseem Mehta is a fellow with Immigrant Justice Corps and CARA Pro Bono Project.