“It feels like a jail, and they’re treating them like they’re in jail,” Joseph Kennedy III, a Democratic representative from Massachusetts, told the New York Times after visiting a detention facility in Clint, Texas. Kennedy was part of a congressional delegation that arrived in response to reports from investigators about the inhumane and presumably illegal conditions that children were subject to in the Border Patrol station, which is one of several such facilities operating well over capacity as the Trump administration detains thousands of people for simply crossing the border. Kennedy’s comment was undoubtedly well-intentioned, but also suggests he came to Clint and found something unexpected: a jail full of children. But of course that is what a detention facility is, and of course the existence of these places and the conditions inside them are not new.
Still, the instinct toward horror is the correct one, and it’s important that members of Congress have gone to these facilities and named them. Earlier this week, also as part of a congressional delegation, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke not only of the conditions inside the facility, but of the glee with which Border Patrol agents seemed to enforce them. Even in the presence of elected officials, Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress said they saw agents abuse and verbally harass people in their custody:
This is vile—and familiar. There is no such thing as a humane detention facility, there is no such thing as a humane border policy that detains families—separately or together. The way that this system functions is the way that it was designed to.
In the current news cycle, with a national audience once again exposed to the profound suffering this system creates, it feels important to place the crisis in its larger context. The pieces below tell part of that story, from the border policies that have for decades pushed people to cross through increasingly dangerous and deadly terrains, to a Congress that habitually funds its militarization, to an infrastructure of state violence that rightly presumes it can act with impunity. This is things working, not things breaking down.
‘I Have Never Seen Conditions as Degrading and Inhumane’: Scenes From the Border Camps
Many children haven’t bathed for days and days and days as they crossed the border. Some haven’t bathed in more than three weeks. There is a stench that emanates from them. Unfortunately, many of the children there, they’re wearing the same dirty clothes that they crossed the border in. The overwhelming majority of them have had no changes of clothes since crossing the border, so they’re wearing clothes that are stained in bodily fluids—including urine for the young children, including mucus. Almost everyone is sick. And for the breastfeeding mothers, they have breast milk over their shirt. The toilets are not adequately cleaned or maintained. There’s no access to soap, to wash hands.
I have been doing this work with hundreds of kids in immigration detention, but I’ve never seen children as traumatized as the ones who I’ve seen there.
Pregnant, Sick, and Fast-Tracked for Deportation
“She was handcuffed and taken right off the street in front of Alma’s mother and other witnesses,” says Jodi Ziesemer, an attorney at NYLAG and the director of the organization’s Immigrant Protection Unit. HuffPost reports that before her arrest, Centeno Santiago lived with her boyfriend, her mother, her two children, and a niece, and that she’s worked at a bakery and served as the family’s main breadwinner. She’s currently being held at New Jersey’s Bergen County Detention Facility, which the Queens Daily Eagle reports is under quarantine due to a mumps outbreak.
Centeno Santiago only learned that she was pregnant after she was taken into ICE custody, Ziesemer says, and soon began experiencing vomiting, stomach pain, and dehydration. HuffPost reports she’s been hospitalized twice for stomach infections since entering the facility.
Centeno Santiago’s mother told the New York Daily News, “She has pains,” adding, “she’s not used to the [detention facility] food, they’re not feeding her breakfast. They won’t let her wash some days.” An ICE spokesperson told the Daily News that “all detainees receive necessary and appropriate health services, food, and care.” (This of course isn’t the first time people in immigration custody have come forward about inhumane and illegal conditions.)
‘It’s Functioning Exactly As Intended’: Our Border Policy Is Designed to Be Deadly
I think with Trump it’s more of a culture issue. It’s an advancement of xenophobia in the media. It’s intimidation tactics like when he flooded the border with extra agents, sending active duty troops down. It’s the rhetoric of the administration, which is very, very harmful. Jeff Sessions announced the family separation policy and people understandably reacted to that on a very visceral level. While that was a new proposal by Trump’s administration, the roots of what he’s doing have already been there. We try to emphasize that the U.S. border policies since the mid-1990's has been an incredibly dangerous and racist set of policies. Nothing happens in a vacuum. For Trump, we would say that he’s a fulfillment of many people’s border fantasies and the people who voted him into office. But things have been bad down here for a while. [....]
As a general concept, I think people are pretty unfamiliar with the way the border landscape actually looks like. I can certainly understand that, before I moved to Tucson I didn’t actually understand what the actual desert looks like and what it means. I think a lot of folks don’t realize why there’s no wall in certain parts of the desert, and that’s because the terrain is so dangerous and so difficult that it’s virtually impossible to cross. So when Clinton started prevention through deterrence with Border Patrol in 1994, the idea was the government understood that people were going to die, and the official statement is we thought that would be a deterrent, we thought people would not come after that. Of course the numbers just escalated. And that went on through Bush, it went on through Obama. It’s working because the desert does its job very effectively. When Border Patrol is functioning and the desert is functioning as it currently does, we know exactly what that outcome is.
‘Bandaid on a Gaping Wound’: Treating Colds, Trauma, and Uncertainty at the Border
In the United States, we often don’t recognize what it means to be needed. And we think of this as a weakness, to have those needs. This is how a lot of migrants are seen: that they are greedy or wanting of something they don’t deserve. But Americans, we feel very justified in our needs—that we need a sweatshirt made in a Honduran sweatshop. That we need coffee and drugs and that we are entitled to those things. From the American perspective, those things are much more important than the people from those same places. That is how the American psyche has been constructed: to not recognize the humanity in the people trying to cross the border. When I look at things from that perspective, in terms of how we treat borders, I feel pretty strongly that we have never developed a border policy that is actually reflective of the relationships that the U.S. actually has to Latin America.
But the work happening in the clinics is just one small piece. It’s triage—the need is so great. The first thing I thought when I finished my last day there, reflecting on how many patients we had seen, was: “I don’t know how I could have physically done more.” And then my next thought was: “That was not enough.”
The Democrats’ Long, Disastrous Love Affair With ‘Border Security’
Again and again, you can see the [2020 Democratic presidential] candidates walk up to the line of calling for a humane immigration system, but then doubling down on precisely the systems and policies that make it so violent in the first place. Earlier this year, Kamala Harris criticized Trump’s border wall, but told an audience, “I do support border security, and if we want to talk about that, let’s do that.” She reiteratedthat view during an appearance on the Daily Show, telling Trevor Noah, “[W]e need smart border security. We can’t have open borders, we need to have border security, all nations do.”
Bernie Sanders, whose long-standing claim that open borders would depress wages for American workers (which myopically puts some of the blame for the exploitative labor practices of employers on immigrants) has led to some unlikely allies from the right, has long expressed the need to secure our borders. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both voted in favor of 2013's Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which included provisions that today read like several items from Trump’s wishlist—up to $40 billion for border enforcement, including an additional 20,000 Border Patrol agents and 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as an expansion of the employment verification system E-Verify.
Similarly, Cory Booker has said he wants immigration reform while “enforcing our laws and securing our borders in ways consistent with our values.” While Kirsten Gillibrand, who had previously fought efforts to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses, pushed to hire more ICE officers, and repeatedly called for increased border security, now says that she’s ashamed of her previous hardline stances and that her views have changed, she continues to highlight the need for border security.
Migrant Parents Face a Long, Complicated Road Ahead to Get Their Children Back
When a parent is working through this on their own, without representation, they’re facing some significant challenges. First and foremost, they have to find where their child is once they’re separated, and the separation, as we understand it, typically occurs when the parents has been charged with illegal entry, because it’s at that point when they’re transferred from ICE custody to U.S. Marshal custody where the children cannot accompany them. So it’s at that point that the children are rendered unaccompanied, by government action, and the children are placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services. For the duration [of the parents’ criminal case], they’ll have their criminal court proceedings in federal district court. Overwhelmingly, they will agree to a plea bargain and serve some period of time in U.S. Marshal custody before they’re transferred back to ICE custody. So they’re moving around a lot in the system, it’s hard to get your bearings when you’re being moved from one system to another. Being able to get to a point where you can call the 1-800 number and find where your child has been transferred to can be much more challenging than you might think.
Once a parent can locate a child, they come to a crossroads. There’s a crucial decision they have to make: whether they want to stay and fight their legal case, fight for the right to stay here in the United States with their child, or whether they would just prefer to return home with their child. Depending on what the parent chooses, depending on their own personal circumstances, the process for reunification looks very different.
A Short, Brutal History of ICE
By 2013, the United States was spending more money on immigration enforcement than all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined; partnerships—both formal and ad hoc—with local police have given ICE an unprecedented presence in communities across the country; it also has, and makes steady use of, its sweeping powers to surveil.
In the creation of DHS and ICE, “Congress established a monster” that could be used by someone like Trump to precisely these ends, says Bill Ong Hing, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and director of its Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic. Hing testified against folding immigration into the DHS back in 2002, and has watched in the years since as his warnings—about overstep, about the conflation of immigrants and terrorists—came into being.
The resulting changes were swift. According to data from the Detention Watch Network, the “average daily population of detained immigrants increased from approximately 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and to over 39,000 in 2017.”
And while the Trump administration has been upfront about unleashing the full power of the machinery that can detain people at that rate, the machinery itself is not a product of the Trump era. “We’ve done this before,” [Erika] Lee, [a history professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the school’s Immigration History Research CentersLee] says. “It’s scale. It’s cooperation with law enforcement. It’s moving the level of enforcement far, far, far into the interior. That was Trump’s second executive order but was a continuation of a philosophy and priority of previous administrations, both Democrat and Republican, since the 1990s.”
And what that has looked like, in recent months, is the targeting, detention, and sometimes removal of parents, sick children, domestic violence victims, and younger immigrants with temporary protection through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It has looked like flouting due process and congressional inquiries. It has looked like lawlessness and impunity.
Militias, Militarism, and Masculinity at the Border: ‘This Is a Story That Dates Much, Much Further Back’ Than Trump
Everything within the organization was modeled after a military kind of organization, so they operated under what they called the chain of command. People there used their old handles or nicknames from their days in the military. That’s how they referred to each other.
Women would be at the base camp maintaining the base camp, this kind of very gendered work. They would also go out on patrol, but the patrols they would do would tend to be during the day. You would almost never see women out at night.
So it’s a very gendered organization, very gendered space, and in many ways again, it was modeled after and reproduced a kind of military organization to the point where, even back at “base camp,” there would be this idea of the men are out at war in the battlefield. The women are back home, and then the men would come back after doing a shift of patrol, almost this kind of homecoming. Everything really felt as if it was reproducing this militaristic organization.
‘It Is Built to Be Confusing’: An Immigration Lawyer on the Trump Administration’s Latest Assault on Low-Income Immigrants
Under current policy, the government can reject applications for visas or permanent residence if they are considered “likely at any time to become a public charge.” But as other outlets have noted, the current designation—which is still expressly designed to target low-income and poor immigrants—is more narrow, including only cash assistance programs. The new proposal, as written, would expand the definition of public charge to include the use of public benefits that some immigrants are eligible for, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid, and give broad discretion to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers to reject applicants based on their perceived economic status.
After the Department of Homeland Security released the draft regulation on Saturday, advocates, lawyers, and service providers started reading through the 400-plus page document to map its potential impact. While many of the immigrants currently eligible for public benefits may not be impacted by the current proposal, advocates have already expressed concern that the proposed rules will nonetheless have a chilling effect and cut communities off from necessary services and benefits. (It also doesn’t require much of a leap to guess that this is the point of the thing.)
The fear of accessing necessary benefits is already having an impact, with service providers reporting a drop off in enrollment and disenrollment.
A Theory of Animals
I’ve heard a lot of border crossing stories. I could never cross the desert. Probably neither could you, unless you did, in which case you know that what you did is something extraordinary that goes against the course of evolution itself. The desert was not meant for us. On a hot day in the desert, a person can lose over three gallons of water through sweat. The Sonoran desert can get up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day in the summer, and scientists who set foot in this desert, North America’s hottest, will hear a silence so deafening that one of them mused, “I wonder, did all the animals just suppress all of their behavior for the rest of the summer, or are they just dead?” But they’re not dead. There are some 60 species of mammals, 350 kinds of birds, 20 different types of amphibians, and approximately 100 reptiles in the Sonora. They’re all just laying low, doing their best to survive. [...]
I knew that under the Trump administration things would be bad. I was hopeful it would be nothing we hadn’t seen before, but the situation has become alarming. I think about the animals that have evolved to survive in the most inhospitable of climates. The sand gazelles of the Arabian desert, lithe and cream-colored with tall black antlers. When it gets too hot, their hearts and livers shrink. Their hearts can shrink by as much as 20 percent and their livers by as much as 45 percent. With their vital organs shrunk, their breathing can slow down, and they do a lot less of it—breathing, I mean—and when they breathe less, there is less of a chance for water to evaporate. I think of cacti, who have spines but not leaves, and who have thorns to protect them from predators. I think of camels, who have the thickest furs at the top of their bodies to protect them from the sun’s rays. I think about turkey vultures who piss on themselves so when that water evaporates from their legs, heat leaves their bodies with it. These animals evolved to survive. Surviving is their job—expending just enough energy, preserving just enough water, expelling just enough moisture that they will live to see another day. And for so long I have seen them as crazy little apocalyptic mutants to admire, creatures that know how to thrive in the harshest of circumstances, against all odds, in defiance of the Lord’s own taste for arbitrary violence. I have a tattoo on my arm that says mutant.