At a Catholic respite center in McAllen, Tex., last month, three children put marker to canvas and created little works of art.
The children were migrants who had recently been released from the custody of United States Customs and Border Protection, and their drawings recalled conditions at their detention facilities. All three pieces are dominated by heavy lines — crisscrossed or up and down — that seem to represent cages or fences.
Now, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History has expressed an interest in their pieces. A curator there inquired about the drawings “as part of an exploratory process,” the museum said in a statement on Monday.
The museum said it had reached out to CNN, which reported on the drawings last week, and to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which helped bring the drawings to the attention of the news media. But it added that it “does not publicize nor speculate on potential collecting prior to formally accessioning artifacts.”
[Read more: Inside the migrant detention center in Clint, Tex.]
An A.A.P. staff member took pictures of the drawings last month after visiting government facilities in Texas at the invitation of customs officials, the academy’s incoming president, Sara Goza, said in an interview on Monday.
On the trip, she toured the Border Patrol’s Central Processing Center in McAllen, a facility often known as Ursula.
“First and foremost, as pediatricians, the A.A.P. is convinced that children don’t belong in Customs and Border Control facilities,” Dr. Goza said, adding that the experience can be traumatic and have lasting effects on children.
“When they opened the door for us to go into the facility, the first thing was the smell — a mixture between urine and sweat and feces,” she said. She said she saw families as well as unaccompanied children inside, and some seemed frightened while others wore unnervingly blank expressions.
Later, she went to the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen.
The center is a resting spot for families. Those who pass through it are usually coming from one of several detention facilities run by customs officials in the Rio Grande Valley, of which Ursula is one. The migrants usually do not stay at the respite center more than 24 hours; they are on their way to find family members or sponsors after being released from federal custody.
Dr. Goza said she had been told the three artists were 10 and 11 years old, but she did not know their names. Nor did Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who oversees the respite center. In an interview Monday, she said the drawings were in her organization’s possession.
Two of the drawings show stick figures that look as if they are in cages. In one drawing, five figures look as if they are lying on the floor under blankets, while another figure in a hat looks over them.
In another, there is a cage holding five figures. Three more figures are outside the cage — one small, like a child, and two larger, with hats.
In the third picture, there are no people — only a couple of toilets in a corner. Those are behind bars, too.
The A.A.P. staff member’s photographs of the drawings caught the attention of the news media and became a poignant symbol of the plight of migrant families and children.
Thousands of children have been separated from their families because of controversial immigration policies under President Trump, and an influx of migrant families from across the southern border has highlighted the failure of the administration’s hard-line policies to deter them.
In a statement on Tuesday, a Customs and Border Protection official said the agency “leverages our limited resources to provide the best care possible to those in our custody, especially children.”
“Our short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations and we urgently need additional humanitarian funding to manage this crisis,” the statement added. “C.B.P. works closely with our partners at the Department of Health and Human Services to transfer unaccompanied children to their custody as soon as placement is identified, and as quickly and expeditiously as possible to ensure proper care.”
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations human rights chief and a former president of Chile, on Monday condemned how the United States treats migrant children arriving from Mexico, saying she was “shocked” at the conditions they faced in detention centers after crossing the border.
And last week, the Department of Homeland Security’s independent watchdog said that squalid, overcrowded conditions at migrant centers along the southern border were more widespread than had previously been revealed. After visiting facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, inspectors from the department’s Office of Inspector General said in a report that they found children with few spare clothes and no laundry facilities, and that many migrants were given only wet wipes to clean themselves and bologna sandwiches to eat, causing health problems.
Sister Pimentel said that children at the respite center in McAllen — the vast majority of whom had migrated from Central or South America — created many pieces of art, and not all of them were about detention.
“Here, children have an opportunity to be children again, because they’ve been scared and they’ve seen their parents crying,” she said. “I believe that these children show a lot of resilience. Many of their drawings show very positive things, and that’s something that’s very beautiful.”
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a collection of more than 1.8 million objects. Part of its mission is to “explore the infinite richness and complexity of American history,” and its artifacts include Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet and the flag that inspired the national anthem.
The museum is also home to various artifacts from the United States border with Mexico, including a uniform worn by American border agents; a piece of an old border fence between the Mexican city of Mexicali and Calexico, Calif.; and everyday items — a toothbrush, a razor, a comb — left in the Arizona desert by migrants.
In its statement, the museum said it “has a long commitment to telling the complex and complicated history of the United States and to documenting that history as it unfolds.”