Opinion: Creating a humanitarian crisis -- while ignoring U.S. history

Border Patrol releases video showing detainees in cages inside a detention center in Texas

The U.S. Border Patrol released video of a brief tour they gave reporters inside a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, where it holds families arrested at the southern U.S. border. The video shows adult and children housed in cages.
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The U.S. Border Patrol released video of a brief tour they gave reporters inside a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, where it holds families arrested at the southern U.S. border. The video shows adult and children housed in cages.

In an effort to "send a message" to potential asylum seekers from Mexico and Central America, the Trump administration and the Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department have created a humanitarian crisis on the border.

In May, the administration began separating children from their parents at the border, after thousands of asylum-seekers found their way to northern Mexico in hopes of escaping the crime and violence that has become the norm in their Central American homes.

It is difficult to overstate the cruelty of this policy, or to imagine the trauma that forced separation is likely to inflict upon children and families. For a party of "family values," Republicans have shown a remarkable tolerance for what can be termed psychological torture and terror by supporting routine family separation. But as long as we turn a blind eye to what our government is doing, none of us is free of complicity.

Some 2,000 children are said to be in government custody. Their conditions largely a mystery, though, since few reporters or lawmakers have been allowed access to the facilities where migrant children are held.

Meanwhile, the few who have been allowed in report disturbing details. After his initial visit, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) reported seeing "hundreds of children locked up in cages.” Jacob Soboroff, one of few reporters allowed into the facilities, describes overcrowding, and children having to spend up to 22 hours indoors, essentially being treated as prisoners.

The tactics of separating children from their parents are equally grotesque.

For example, news reports state that Border Patrol officers have told parents their children are being taken to bathe, but then the children never return. One mother's infant was stripped from her as she was breastfeeding. The problem has become so large that the Trump administration has even suggested creating a "tent city" to house migrant children. The proposed "tent city" would be located in the Texas desert near Tornillo, where temperatures have already reached triple digits.

The “tent city” euphemism hardly conceals the ugly connotations of a concentration camp. The numbing details of how children are being treated and the use of children as bargaining chips should be enough for every decent American to forcefully rebuke this policy.

Then there are the eerie parallels to American history’s most shameful episodes — the forced separation of parents and children during slavery, the 19th- and early 20th-century practice of removing Native American children from their parents in order to “civilize” and Americanize them, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Yet the president, our increasingly unjust Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), continue to enforce a policy that can without hyperbole be called barbaric.

As the child of a once-undocumented migrant worker, I remember seeing my father leave home to seek work, not knowing whether he’d ever return. I cannot begin to imagine the added trauma children are experiencing by being held, essentially as prisoners, away from their parents.

Trump and Sessions insist that the get-tough, zero-tolerance policy is aimed at deterring criminals from crossing the border illegally. They specifically cite MS-13, the vicious gang that the administration so often uses as a convenient boogeyman.

But while the violence of MS-13 is real, it is the gang’s victims who are being punished. Central American immigrants are fleeing north precisely to escape the gang violence that has become the norm at home in places like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They are fleeing their homes, leaving everything behind, in hopes of giving their children a more peaceful future.

Due to our collective historical amnesia, we often forget the United States helped create this violence. The U.S. supported coups and installed despotic regimes in Central American countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador. Our country also undermined democratic movements in the region, which led to an explosion in gang violence, as the need to survive pushed large numbers of people into the criminal underground.

By every account, the asylum-seekers have no criminal intent and are people who have made the trek across Mexico in hopes of finding relative peace and safety. They are being subjected to a process that is neither legally justifiable nor morally defensible. Immigration is a complex, difficult issue grounded in an equally complex history that cannot be separated from questions of human rights and international relations. The Trump approach not only ignores that history, but attempts to “send a message” in the most simplistic, cruel way possible. Americans must demand that the administration consider humane, rational and reasoned immigration reform, one that does not involve separating families or putting children in prison-like conditions.

Eladio Bobadilla is an immigration historian and a doctoral candidate at Duke University. He is a formerly undocumented immigrant and a Navy veteran.

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