Children sleeping on concrete. Children covered in feces, mucus, urine. Children without adequate food and water; subjected to extreme temperatures; held in pens with the lights on 24 hours a day. Children in conditions that physicians say are “tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease.” In one holding facility, agents appointed a child “boss” in a cohort of detainees to keep the other kids in line, in exchange for extra food rations. Other migrants were kept under a bridge in El Paso, where toddlers and pregnant women slept on gravel and were bombarded by pigeon droppings; men were warehoused nearby in an open-air “human dog pound.” They’re the lucky ones, the ones who made it. Among the unlucky are Oscar Alberto Martinez and his 2-year-old daughter Angie, who drowned late last month near Matamoros. In a photo that pierced the public consciousness, Angie clutches her father’s neck with her tiny arm as the two lie face-down in the reeds among discarded beer cans.
A hardline position on immigration shouldn’t require that detained migrants be treated as subhuman. Such cruelty doesn’t strengthen arguments that the wall should be built or that all undocumented immigrants should be deported. More to the point, there is nothing about those political beliefs that excuses their proponents from the basic moral imperative that other human beings deserve fair treatment and respect.
We’re talking Ethics 101 stuff here. Anyone with a passing familiarity with religion, history, philosophy, the Wikipedia page for John Rawls, most children’s TV shows, or even a couple episodes of Star Trek, understands the concept. Treat others as you would like to be treated, and work to help others in need. Children aren’t responsible for the crimes of their parents, and even if they were, perpetrators of crimes shouldn’t be forced to surrender their dignity. That’s even setting aside the facts that many of those suffering in the detention centers haven’t been charged with crimes, that illegally crossing an international border is a relatively minor offense, and that claiming asylum isn’t a crime at all.
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But obvious moral truths have become clouded for a great many people in this country, and that is a terribly worrisome thing. Somehow the question of whether it is appropriate to mentally, emotionally, and physically abuse children has become subsumed into the wider debate about immigration policies. If you support the Trump administration, you’re likely to downplay what’s happening at the border, or to excuse it, or to disbelieve media accounts. “These aren’t our kids,” Brian Kilmeade, the co-host of the president’s favorite morning show, Fox & Friends, said last summer during the first fights over family separation. “Show them compassion, but it’s not like he is doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas. These are people from another country.”
That’s a fairly common sentiment—a kind of barbaric indifference that’s baked into the way the U.S. has adapted to handle immigration flows. Migrants are treated as less than human, responsive only to the incentives of corrective measures and punishment. At a border security convention in San Antonio recently, the acting head of ICE, Ronald Vitiello, gave a keynote address in which he told the audience that “if you prosecute crimes, and you give people consequences, you get less of it,” he said.
After Vitiello’s speech, an ICE official told reporters that “you’re seeing so many family units” make the crossing because “there’s no consequence, and everybody knows that.” If you make the experience treacherous, even lethal, people will stop coming. That’s government policy. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that “if Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!”
For more than a century, people flowed back and forth over the border with little trouble—sometimes with official permission, sometimes not. The border was theoretical, and then it became real. When people could no longer cross easily, they had to put down roots here and stay for as long as possible, lest they face another difficult journey. A new permanent underclass of the undocumented was created, spawning resentment and political strife, which led to the government cracking down on border crossings.
Authorities made it harder to cross in the easy places—like the beach south of San Diego—hoping that pushing the flow to more dangerous places, like the Arizona desert, would dissuade people from coming. That was the first bargain we made with cruelty, and it didn’t work. Migrants crossed in the desert and hiked for miles around internal checkpoints, dying by the thousands in the process, their bodies littering the borderland. People kept coming.
Volunteers began leaving water in the desert to help the dying, and picking them up on the roadside to save their lives, and the government started trying to put those Good Samaritans in prison. Do-gooders like Scott Warren were breaking the bargain with cruelty—perhaps they were the reason it wasn’t working. As crossings got more difficult, people were less able to manage it by themselves, and so they became indebted to coyotes and traffickers, who extract their own terrible tax. Still, they kept coming.
A few years ago, the profile of a typical immigrant changed. Instead of undocumented economic migrants from Mexico, would-be refugees started arriving, mostly from Central American countries where the United States has a less-than-stellar history of harmful meddling. They didn’t need to cross the desert because they arrived to make legitimate claims for asylum. They often wanted to turn themselves in as soon as they reached the U.S. They explained, at length, why they were coming—political instability and corruption, climate change, rampant gang violence.
The Trump administration was explicit in its belief that family separation, and a raft of other measures designed to punish asylum seekers, would dissuade migrants from coming. Their logic was that cruelty was justified as a means of convincing others not to attempt the dangerous journey north. Yet the people keep coming. Central Americans know who our president is, and that our government has taken a turn against migrants, but it makes no difference. They feel they have no choice but to leave their homes.
So all we’re left with is purposeless cruelty. Our leaders can think of no other answer to immigration than to deliver punishment, despite clear evidence that it has never worked. The seekers (of asylum, of a job, of safe harbor) are going to keep coming, and we know that they are people in danger and need. It isn’t that complicated.
Over the course of the next several decades, rich countries are likely to see increased migrant flows from poor ones due to climate change and its attendant geopolitical instability. That’s already a big reason why migrants are coming from Guatemala, and it’s going to get worse. While the stuff that’s happening in the camps on American soil is getting the most media attention here, the most significant aspect of the Trump administration’s immigration policies is arguably the outsourcing of immigration controls southward — seeking to pressure Mexico to make the problem theirs, and to bribe poor Central American governments to restrict the movement of their own people, like East Germany once did. In other words, to offshore the cruelty.
There’s a strong possibility that the next president, whatever party he or she belongs to, will discontinue only the most egregious parts of the Trump administration’s system and keep the rest. Americans, desensitized to the problem by these numbing years, will have learned not to care.
Some would have you believe there is a binary choice between concentration camps and open borders, but that’s false. Several decades of militarizing the border and inflicting increasingly serious punishments on people hasn’t mitigated the problem, and these actions have stained the nation’s moral conscience.
This week, ProPublica published an expose about a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents with a membership of 9,500, highlighting their casual and grotesque dehumanization of migrants. One member posted the picture of Martinez and his daughter. “Have y’all ever seen floaters this clean,” the poster said. “I HAVE NEVER SEEN FLOATERS LIKE THIS, could be another edited photo. We’ve all seen the dems and liberal parties do some pretty sick things.”
It’s a sentiment that’s indicative of a profound moral sickness. It’s a sickness that may not be shared by all Border Patrol agents, but it would take an exceptional person to do the job they do day in and day out and not lose a sense of compassion. They are tasked by the government with herding human beings like cattle, and in the process they become desensitized. Frighteningly, perhaps, so are many of us.