by Timothy L. O’Brien
We’ve now had several months of reports of inhumane and obscene conditions at the migrant detention camps managed by the Trump administration along the southern U.S. border with Mexico. The myriad, sordid details are already part of a larger stain on America’s collective ethos; they will disfigure the country’s reputation for generations to come.
A report released on Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security’s independent monitor found that overcrowding or prolonged detention at five centers in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley represented “an immediate risk to the health and safety” of detained migrants, and violated laws governing how detainees should be treated. DHS inspectors visited the facilities in June and found that adults were crammed into cells with only room to stand and that children weren’t given hot meals or showers.
Migrants forced to clean themselves with wet wipes or subsist on bologna sandwiches had developed constipation and other medical problems. They were so desperate to leave the detention centers, the report said, that when they saw inspectors they “banged on the cell windows, shouted, pressed notes to the window with their time in custody.” Detention camps meant to keep migrants for days while they awaited deportation or a transfer to longer-term facilities are now housing people for weeks on end.
The DHS report came on the heels of statements from several members of Congress (all Democrats), who toured facilities in Clint and El Paso, Texas on Monday and described equally squalid conditions. Two of the lawmakers said border patrol agents had told detained migrant women that running water wasn’t available and that they should drink from toilets.
Last week, the Texas Tribune reported that while some migrants at a facility in Donna, Texas, described their treatment as humane others held in camps in McAllen and Del Rio, Texas, weren’t allowed to bathe or brush their teeth. “They don’t have the humanitarian conditions for people to be there,” one migrant told the newspaper. “There were more than 200 of us in a single cage – seated on the floor, standing, however we could fit.” The same person said that “the stench inside overflowing toilets was so bad it made him gag and caused children to vomit.”
In late June the New York Times reported that the Clint facility wasn’t providing migrants with toothbrushes, toothpaste or soap. “Children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met,” the Times wrote of the Clint camp. “Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants. Teenage mothers are wearing clothes stained with breast milk.”
Last year, after the Trump administration launched its “zero tolerance” policy aimed at discouraging migrants from crossing the southern border by charging them with crimes and separating children from their families or caregivers, the DHS wasn’t prepared to deal with the humanitarian crisis that ensued. The department, according to another of its own reports, lied about maintaining a non-existent “central database” it claimed it was using to keep track of separated parents and children. U.S. Border Patrol agents didn’t tell migrant parents that they would be separated from their kids until after it happened, according to that DHS report.
Some Border Patrol agents have seemed content to bring a cold-blooded, racist approach to their work for quite some time. On Monday, ProPublica, a non-profit investigative news organization, reported that a secret Facebook group for current and former agents with 9,500 members had circulated posts over the last three years that included agents joking about migrant deaths. One recent post shared by the group included speculation about a highly publicized photo, taken by the photojournalist Julia Le Duc, of a dead migrant father and his young daughter lying face down in the Rio Grande river. A member of the group wondered if the photo had been doctored because “I HAVE NEVER SEEN FLOATERS LIKE THIS.”
The ProPublica account follows last year’s reporting about the prosecution of one Border Patrol agent, Matthew Bowen, for using his pickup truck to run down a migrant in southern Arizona. Investigators found text messages on Bowen’s phone shared among several agents in which they referred to migrants as “subhuman,” “wild ass shitbags,” “beaners” and “guats.” Bowen’s attorney said in a court filing that his client’s views were common among Border Patrol agents. Migrants are “disgusting subhuman shit unworthy of being kindling for a fire,” Bowen wrote in one text. “PLEASE let us take the gloves off trump!” he wrote in another.
President Donald Trump, of course, has let everyone take the gloves off, including the young xenophobe who shapes his immigration policy, Stephen Miller. There’s ample White House spin meant to distract from the reality of what that policy means in the real world. The president’s wife Melania has made much of being a “#BeBest Ambassador” committed to improving “the lives of children everywhere.” The president’s daughter Ivanka purports to be an advocate for empowering women globally. None of those fine sentiments extends to the migrant children and women caged along the southern border.
It’s possible that the president and Miller are happy to let this humanitarian crisis fester because they see it as a useful tool for dissuading migrants from making the journey north to flee the drug wars and economic distress in Central America. There certainly wasn’t a border crisis until Trump and Miller began implementing their handiwork.
Apprehensions of undocumented immigrants had been at a decades-long low prior to Trump’s inauguration. According to the DHS report released Tuesday, 99,835 migrants were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley area between October 2017 and May 2018; the figure was 223,263 during the same period a year later. The Trump administration hasn’t been able to manage that massive jump and the detention facilities clearly can’t absorb such huge numbers of people.
The nation’s conscience shouldn’t keep absorbing these obscenities and crimes either. On Tuesday a federal judge ordered lawyers for migrants and the federal government to resolve a dispute over allowing independent doctors and health experts to inspect detention facilities in Texas, including those in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s part of a court action that seeks to sanction the government for breaking the law at the camps. Like much in the Trump administration, it ultimately may be up to the law – rather than the president’s Republican Party or common decency – to rein in the White House’s war on migrants.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”