House Democrats, voting nearly in unison Tuesday night, countered human rights abuses worthy of the Hague’s attention with more words and money. I won’t waste space with the words, because it isn’t all that courageous to cuss out an administration for arguing in court to deny migrant children in government custody toothbrushes and soap — or for actually doing it, while also refusing citizen efforts to donate the supplies. Lawyers allowed into the Clint, Texas facility by virtue of the 1997 Flores settlement, which governs the treatment of children in U.S. custody, told The New York Times late last week that kids were being held far longer than the 72 hours they were legally allowed and that some as young as seven and eight, “many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met” and that “toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants.” Another report detailed lice and influenza there. One lawyer observed that most of the children hadn’t bathed.
The problem stretches far beyond that one facility. ABC News reported that at a Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, a doctor observed children subjected to conditions so awful that they were “tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease,” including what she described as extreme cold temperatures, lights left on for 24 hours a day, and zero access to adequate water, food, medical care, or basic sanitation. Lawyers forced Border Patrol to hospitalize four toddlers who were exhibiting symptoms of fever, cough, vomiting and diarrhea.
As for the money, though, the measure would allocate $4.5 billion that the Trump administration is supposed to spend on humanitarian aid. There are supposedly sufficient restrictions to ensure that, though not enough to convince the progressive bloc of four female, first-year representatives of color: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. Only they, and every Republican for different reasons, voted against the bill.
Those four women did the right thing. Mitch McConnell’s Senate Republicans will surely now attempt to pass their more obsequious bill, so I can’t say that House Democrats implicitly endorsed the continuing state of affairs with an imperfect bill. But there really is no reason to trust the Trump administration with a dime of border funds until it ends the abuse of children there. The president is showing himself to be above the law in an entirely new way, caging kids in conditions that would certainly have a poor mother or father brought up on charges right now had they treated their own offspring like this. Trump — with advisor Stephen Miller’s guidance and the endorsement of people like Mark Morgan, his newest acting Customs and Border Protection head — have turned undocumented people into political hostages, dangling the prospect of a potentially violent and certainly reckless nationwide siege of apprehensions. I’ll do it unless the Democrats do what I want, tweets the dastardly villain.
So even though the Republican-led Senate will try to pass an even more the Democrats endeavored to hand $4.5 billion to Trump for use in the U.S. immigration apparatus, which to date he has only sought to exploit almost solely for white supremacist goals, employing systemic torture and child abuse that have led to illness and deaths — on both sides of the border — that weren’t happening before Trump was elected. This is new and old at once, and that is why “exploit” is the correct term.
Trump’s evil actions with regard to immigration enforcement and the catastrophe that is resulting from it are borne from his preternatural talent for discovering where America is not quite so exceptional — and emphasizing that point even further.
While Trump continues to lie that he got his family-separation policy from President Obama, some of the horrific detention conditions that we see today did not start with this administration. That the country continues to be so shocked by the administration’s treatment of migrants, especially children, speaks to how little we as a public have understood about our nation and how, perhaps, Americans’ assumptions about how our government might treat people have opened the door for someone like Trump to do what he is doing.
Under George W. Bush, spiking criminal proceedings for illegal entry — sparked by the “zero-tolerance” (sound familiar?) Homeland Security/DOJ initiative Operation Streamline — raised “serious due process concerns” with the ACLU. In addition to their well-earned reputation for mass deportations, the Obama administration created new family detention centers in 2014. Even Sarah Fabian, that same Justice Department lawyer who was arguing for the Trump administration to deny migrant children basic toiletries, argued during the Obama years that the government should be able to lock up children in solitary confinement.
However, it is the conditions in the CBP facility that remain the most lasting injustice. Aura Bogado reported that year for Colorlines and Race Forward on hieleras, or “iceboxes,” the rooms where migrant children are placed for processing that are left so cold the kids are left to feel as though they are freezing. The ACLU of Arizona successfully sued in 2015 to stop the practice, but the Trump administration has continued the use of hieleras, which were connected to at least two migrant deaths in 2018.
It should be noted that there were no deaths of migrant children during Obama’s two terms in office, and there have been several while Trump has been president. Cruelty is not an accident, and thus things have gotten much, much worse for migrants either being held in United States facilities or in overheated Mexican encampments that have been set up across the border in response to Trump’s hardline border stance. His nativism was captured in a photograph, published today on the front page of today’s Times: the dead bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his baby daughter, Valeria, floating in the Rio Grande after a failed, desperate run for the border following a stay in one of Mexico’s miserable camps.
In a nation built on a foundation of genocide, enslavement, and sexual brutalization, it is a wonder how often it seems that we are struck dumb by the horrors authored by our own imperfect American experiment. Yes, the Founders may have anticipated that a monster like Trump would arrive one day, but not nearly enough of the President’s predecessors did the same. Nor did we, as the public. Our righteousness, however productively it manifests, is late. Both we and the candidates who begin debating in public this evening should keep that in mind, understanding full well that whatever clean-up job that a next president must undertake must be a systematic one, accounting not merely for Trump’s sins but for our own.