The Detaining of Immigrant Children: Pi||age, A Portrait of Trauma and Resilience

BACKGROUNDOne of the largest outrages in American politics this past year revolved around the topic of detaining migrant children, separating them from their families, and overflowing potentially-abusive shelters with children so young as to be nonverbal with no priority on parental reunion

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THE SITUATIONThe erasure of migrant trauma and child welfare is stunningly brusque, but it was an article from a few weeks ago that completely broke my heart: some facilities are forcing children to take psychotropic drugs without familial consent or believable emergency justifications, using brain-altering chemicals as ”straight-jackets.” 

One detained boy describes it like this:

“‘The staff threatened to throw me on the ground and force me to take the medication,’ Julio Z testified. ‘I also saw staff throw another youth to the ground, pry his mouth open and force him to take the medicine. . . . They told me that if I did not take the medicine I could not leave, that the only way I could get out of Shiloh [shelter] was if I took the pills.’

His depression [for which the staff claimed he was receiving medication for] was in large part triggered by ‘being kept from family,’ who had entered the country before him, according to court documents.”


“Staff members at Shiloh admitted to signing off on medications in lieu of a parent, relative or legal guardian, according to [Judge] Gee’s ruling [to require familial consent]. Children testified in court filings that staff with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement would sometimes not tell them what drugs they were being given or why…Some reported being forcibly injected with drugs, and others said they felt that refusing medications would cause them to be detained longer…A doctor at Shiloh who has signed off on many prescriptions for psychotropic drugs to immigrant children has practiced without board certification to treat children and adolescents for nearly a decade, the Center for Investigative Reporting found.” (source)

I could go on and on, but the effect is pretty clear: already, these children are suffering tremendous psychological stress that may impact the rest of their lives due to this detainment policy. As Dr. Jeff Temple, psychologist and professor at the University of Texas says: “‘Really what that amounts to is child abuse. These kids will experience negative and irreparable harm.’

‘It’s like food,’ he says. “Depriving them of their caregivers has effects on their brain as profound as starving them.”

So the use of psychotropic drugs to [supposedly] treat problems that otherwise wouldn’t exist, especially given my background in mental health advocacy, infuriated me to a level I’d never felt before. 

I wanted to create an image about it. I wanted to donate proceeds to the ACLU, who is fighting for the rights of these children. But I ran into a moral dilemma: who do I depict in the photo? And am I to portray repression or resilience? Is optimism an undeserved luxury here; is reality more purposeful and incisive?


I decided to take a self-portrait. I’m an Asian-American female on the tail-end of her teens, in many ways very different from the demographic of detained children in this story. But I thought perhaps an image as ambiguous and faceless as this one more aptly captures the blanket erasure of this policy, and also subtly emphasizes the solidarity that some of us feel, especially given the stories of Asian refugees in the recent past to the U.S. (I could talk about the way American action played a critical role in the destabilization of political environments abroad that led to so many fleeing their home countries, both in Southeast Asia and in Latin America - among other places - and therefore the irony of this treatment of migrant children, many seeking asylum. But that’s a long conversation for another time.)

Anyhow, portraying a child, I believed, would come with moral questions of its own. At least with a self-portrait, the only person that can be harmed out of this is me. Besides, these children may be younger than I am now, but the effects of this experience will stay with them for a lifetime. I thought perhaps my relatively older age can encourage people to consider the long-term impacts of detainment and remember that these children are having to “grow up” prematurely to survive in roles they should never have to play in the first place.

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THE ARTI knew I needed a dark palette and color contrasts that felt slightly uncomfortable. But there is remarkable resilience in these stories of children doing their best to be with each other and fighting on, and I didn’t want to lose that element of their strength. So with the pill containers on my person, I put in flowers and dirt: a symbol of growth and beauty in the very thing that’s supposed to stamp out individuality. After all, it’s not that I have anything against psychotropic drugs - in fact they can be incredibly effective for treating mental disorders. But the entire situation - creating trauma and then forcing the kids into submission with chemical help but without consent, without paralleled psychotherapy and non-medicinal techniques, in a state of legal and psychological limbo - it is exhausting and painful and something far more nuanced than just pills, but the pills are perhaps the most visually surprising way I can draw people into the conversation in the first place. And the bar code resembling prison bars, I hoped, would make people consider the way we’re treating these children: are we commercializing them in the sense that they’ve become one and the same under the policy, stocked in shelters waiting for somebody to pick them up but with no assurances or guarantees? The same idea goes into the title, where || represent l’s in the word “pill(age)”, affirming the way the pills (and the policy behind their usage) is pillaging the children of their young age and their human rights.

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THE FUTUREThere has been some changes since this summer: more than half of children under the age of 5 have been reunited with their families. But as of September, 12800 are still in detainment. The numbers on the barcode attempt to imprint the situation in unforgiving clarity: 012800-9-18-45. 12800 children as of September 2018 in the 45th Presidency of the United States. 

This piece is a spur of the moment - I must do something - reaction to an ever-evolving story of pain and strength. But it is also a call to action. You can donate to an organization actively fighting for these detained children. You can also purchase this artwork on my Redbubble shop, and I’ll donate the proceeds to ACLU while you get a piece of art to keep. You can keep yourself informed and volunteer at the border if you speak Spanish. Spread the truth. Fight for children. Their future is our future, too. 

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