Column: Why you should care that media have been kept out of the migrant center in Long Beach

The pregnant 17-year-old from El Salvador arrived in the United States on April 25. At the border, she was separated from her male cousin and then brought directly to the Long Beach Convention Center, one of several temporary centers being used to house unaccompanied children.

There, she languished for at least 30 days.

“I try to keep busy to keep the time pass [sic] but I really want to leave; it’s been a long time,” she says in court papers filed late last month by immigrant-rights attorneys.

She had been sleeping in a pod with 27 other girls. She had met with a case manager a few times and had been allowed to call home. She heard that one of the staff members at the local center is angry.

The girl’s account of her time in the city is tucked away as Exhibit U in a lengthy court filing by the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, which has been monitoring the children at migrant holding centers across the country.

Her portion of the exhibit is just two pages long, but it is so far the only first-hand account of what life is like inside the Convention Center, beyond public relations events staged or endorsed by the city and various groups, with permission from the federal agency running the facility.

The Los Angeles Dodgers signed balls. Local theater groups have performed. The actor and restaurateur Danny Trejo recently tweeted about his visit and formal declaration of thanks from the mayor.

Yet for eight weeks, the media have largely been denied access to the center, despite numerous requests at all levels. We’ve offered agreements to adhere to all safety protocols, to share our information with other media, and we have given assurances that identities of children will be protected.

Though the city does have power to enter the facility per the contract signed with the government, Mayor Robert Garcia would only say in a recent interview that “he’d love to see as many folks get access as possible,” but that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calls the shots.

HHS has denied our repeated requests for weeks, the latest reason being COVID-19 protocols.

Our best hope was Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who spoke at length on the record about the center, access and what he’s seen in his three visits there.

He concedes: ”This is not the model I would have chosen” in terms of access, adding that HHS had likely lost an opportunity to enlist a community “that has an outpouring of love for these kids.”

Lowenthal’s office and staff subsequently made requests for access on behalf of the Post at two levels within HHS. They were also denied.

In the meantime, we’ve heard glowing accounts of life inside the center from local, state and federal politicians and other community members (“It’s run well,” Lowenthal said. “Very child-oriented”). We get twice-weekly raw numbers from the city—with no context—about the number of kids who’ve been reunited with family in the United States, with tweets from the mayor touting this scant information.

The city gave Trejo a ”certificate of recognition” signed by the mayor for visiting the center with a group of entertainers. We reached out to Trejo’s PR rep for more context about his visit. We got this statement: “We had never experienced anything like this before, the kids were dancing and singing along, we were happy to be a part of their happiness during that moment.”

As a newsroom, we’ve struggled with how to cover these celebrity visits and contextless tweets. Is it noteworthy that celebrities and athletes took the time to visit kids who’ve been through a horrifying ordeal, most of them fleeing poverty and violence in their hometowns? Yes.

Would it give our readers a fair and accurate representation of the situation if we covered these bite-sized pieces of upbeat information when we—and the public by extension—have been denied the full context of what it’s like for a child to live in a Convention Center? Overwhelmingly, we’ve decided, no.

With mere weeks remaining until the Long Beach center closes on Aug. 2, the PR campaign on behalf of the federal government, the Dodgers, the city and others, is winning. These are powerful players with sizable social media followings or bully pulpits they can use to reveal or omit whatever portions of the picture they want.

None of the 1,616 children who have passed through Long Beach have been afforded a voice of their own, except the lone girl in Exhibit U who’s six months pregnant and excited to soon be giving birth to a boy.

To be sure, her account of the Long Beach facility is more positive than the dozen or so other children from other centers interviewed in court documents by immigrant rights activists, who reported cramped quarters, no privacy, no visitation, not enough food and no education or activities.

The girl in Long Beach said, “I am getting the medical care I need here for my pregnancy,” and there are activities during the day such as English classes and time to play outside.

The days are long, she says, and it’s hard to sleep “because of the light.” (It’s unclear what that means; the Convention Center general manager did not return a call.)

“I am really sad being here,” she says.

She hopes to study cosmetology “or something like that,” and would like to get an education, and most of all to be a good mom.

She looked forward to being reunited with her sponsor, her cousin’s father, whom she’s very close to, she says.

In the meantime: “I’ve asked for clean clothes but haven’t gotten them. I asked for pants because my legs were cold and they said I’ve get them [sic] but I never did.

“When I ask for certain things, sometimes I never get it and then I get tired of asking so I give up.”

Melissa Evans is managing editor of the Long Beach Post.

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Melissa has been a journalist for over two decades, starting her career as a reporter covering health and religion and moving into local news. She has worked as an editor for eight years, including seven years at the Press Telegram before joining the Long Beach Post in June 2018. She also serves as a part-time lecturer at Cal State Long Beach where she teaches multimedia journalism and writing.
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