The Shame of Our Border Cruelty

Cedar Attanasio/AP Photo

Central American migrants wait for food in a pen erected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in El Paso, Texas.

Every successive Republican administration in the 21st century eats away a little bit more of our collective souls. The Bush administration tortured Muslims at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and black sites around the world, reducing us to a nation led by war criminals who, even worse, got away with it. The CIA has twice been led since Bush’s departure by individuals complicit in the depravity.

Today the black sites are on our shores, accessible from U.S. highways, in Clint and El Paso, Texas, among other places. The torturing of brown-skinned people has come home, in locked cells where women and children fleeing violence and death have been kidnapped, brutalized, humiliated, degraded. It’s been carried out by an agency, Customs and Border Patrol, whose own words on a private Facebook group reveal their lack of humanity, their tendency to other-ize asylum seekers as one would an enemy in wartime, and to be honest their comfort with fascism.

Hard evidence in the past 48 hours, from a Congressional Hispanic Caucus visit to the black sites, to a dire inspector general’s report from the Department of Homeland Security, have broken open the wounds of a profound moral crisis in America. Family separation continues; children sit in dirty diapers; women trapped in custody are denied showers for weeks and saw clumps of their hair fall out; border agents call their subjects whores and tell them to drink out of toilet bowls when the sinks are broken. The IG report documents crowded holding cells with prisoners sleeping on cement floors with foil blankets or forced to stand. These are on top of the eleven confirmed deaths of migrants in custody since September.

Some have wondered how our polarized political culture would have handled Watergate. Now we have to wonder how it would have handled the beatings on the Edmund Pettus Bridge at Selma, or the turning of hoses and police dogs on civil rights protesters in Montgomery. Then, televised images of the suffering, of man’s inhumanity to man, did change enough opinions, did shake the conscience of enough suburban whites and their representatives, to pass civil rights legislation. Last week, Democrats blindly sent more money into these black sites, into the maw of this catastrophe, without any check on the human rights abuses taking place. And that’s the party with politicians interested in helping these kidnapped human beings.

As Prospect alum Adam Serwer has long pointed out, the cruelty is the point. Hatred drives one of the major political parties in the United States, and their base thrills to the boot coming down on a brown face. We’ve had xenophobic sentiment in America, and in the world, for most of our history. It’s never been as ritualized as we see in El Paso and Clint.

To the extent there’s a strategy here—and really there isn’t, the spectacle of depravity is a response to demand for it—it’s that word of this brutality will travel down to the Northern Triangle, and asylum seekers will not dare make the journey into the heart of darkness again. The problem with this is that it hasn’t worked, at all. The continued flow of migrants across the border, escaping their own violence and cruelty at home, proves the point that these are actual asylum seekers, willing to brave subjugation at the hands of the Customs and Border Patrol, because otherwise they would face a deeper misery and death.

We’ve been at this for a long time. I remember reporting out a story about privatization of the corrections system in 2015, hearing from longtime immigrant rights advocates about renewed deportation raids and family detention centers in Texas nicknamed “baby jails.” Migrants weren’t allowed to leave the facilities, with chronic reports of recurrent child illnesses, inadequate medical care, and punishments of solitary confinement. Immigrants died under our care then, too. The moral crisis has enlarged and unfurled this nightmare to an inattentive nation, who now cannot help but reckon with it.

Donald Trump has not started any wars, at least not apart from the usual ones. He has not singularly crashed the economy, outside of the continued sapping of wealth away from the poor and into the welcoming arms of the rich. He hasn’t handed the country to a foreign government, at least that we know of. The fears of doom upon inauguration didn’t immediately materialize. Except they did. This is the catastrophe we expected, this is the humanitarian disaster. It’s happening on our shores with our tax dollars. And it’s been going on in some form as long as Trump has been president.

This is a policy magazine. We write about what’s happening in our country and our world, and we outline how it can be improved. There will be a time for applying such analysis to border policy. (My early read is that it will be politically wrenching, practically challenging, and generally tragic.) But that time must wait for the moral crisis at the border to cease. There can be no path forward in a continuous period of human rights abuses, where the United States stands in perpetual violation of refugee obligations and international law. This is a time only of action, not strongly worded letters or battle cries or even the words you’re reading right now.

Thinking about whether middle America is ready for a more welcoming immigration policy while state-sponsored torture is occurring would be like wondering about the political practicalities of busing while the bodies of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi during Freedom Summer were exhumed, or the four little girls at the church in Birmingham, Alabama. The state is carrying out a sadistic fantasy, repressing Hispanic men, women, and children for sport. They’re doing it intentionally, with purpose and glee. The primary question, the only question worth asking, is what those in power, and those of us with only the power to enter the streets, are going to do about it.

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