“Freedom to starve is no freedom.”
Patrick Harper, Sharpe’s Rifles (Movie), 1993
This morning, I rose from my cushioned slumber, tossed aside my covers, and went to the bathroom to relieve myself, after which I washed my hands with soap. A little later, I brushed my teeth with a toothbrush and took a shower with hot water, soap and shampoo. No big deal.
Sleeping up off the floor, soap, showers, hot water, a toothbrush. Felons convicted of violent crimes receive those things. The Eight Amendment affords prisoners at least a minimum standard of living and no overcrowding of facilities. The Third Geneva Convention requires prisoners of war, i.e., people captured actually fighting your country, to receive adequate food, a place to sleep, clothing, clean facilities, showers, soap, toiletries for personal hygiene, and medical attention. Yet children, detained at our border, for no greater crime than fleeing extremely dangerous situations in their home countries, have been denied those basics.
The Horrifying Details
Civil rights groups, attorneys, medical professionals, and others have raised alarms after visiting facilities where the government currently holds immigrant children and adults. They report overcrowded facilities, where cells are sometimes standing room only. Interviews note detainees with no available changes of clothes. Detainees surrender their valuables, including money and phones, and the government simply throws away some belongings. People are not receiving proper medical attention or access to necessary medicine. There is insufficient food. Younger children are handed off to the care of older children already in custody. The facilities are so unsanitary that guards wear face masks to protect themselves. The children are not allowed to bathe and don’t have access to soap or other personal hygiene necessities. Sometimes they do not adequately receive diapers. Physical and emotional trauma abound.
Over two days in May, the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security reported the 125 person maximum capacity El Paso Del Norte Processing Center housed 750 to 900 adults in standing room only conditions for days, and, in some cases, weeks. The Office observed people standing on toilets in cells in order to gain breathing space, which resulted in limiting access to the toilets for their normal use. The Office’s report correlates the appalling conditions to the Trump administration’s increased immigration enforcement, noting, “According to the CBP statistics, the number of southwest border migrant apprehensions during the first seven months of FY 2019 has in general already surpassed that of the total apprehensions for each of the previous four fiscal years.”
Children suffer too. One immigrant girl told attorneys who visited the Clint, Texas facility for children, “A Border Patrol agent came in our room with a two-year-old boy and asked us, ‘Who wants to take care of this little boy?’” The girl was one of three youngsters trying to care for a two-year-old, who, when the attorneys saw him, had wet his pants, had no diaper, and was wearing a mucus-smeared shirt.
Since 2007, Elora Mukherjee, a Columbia Law School professor and director of the school’s Immigrant’s Rights Clinic, has worked on issues related to the 1997 Flores settlement, which governs the standards for detention and treatment of immigrant children, including that they must be kept in safe and sanitary conditions. Ms. Murkherjee said of her visit to the Clint facility, “An overwhelming number of children who I interviewed had not had an opportunity for a stable shower or bath since crossing the border [days or weeks earlier]. They were wearing the same clothing that they had crossed the border in. Their clothing was covered in bodily fluids, including urine and breast milk for the teenage moms who are breastfeeding.”
Mukherjee further described the conditions, “There was a stench emanating from some of the children. It was filthy and disgusting and there was, as of last week, a flu epidemic at Clint and a lice infestation. And children do not have the ability to wash their hands with soap at Clint.”
On failure to provide adequate medical attention, Mukherjee noted, “The previous week my colleagues from the Flores team were in Ursula [a detention center in McAllen, Texas] interviewing children, and the lawyers and doctor on that team identified multiple infants who were extremely sick and who needed to be hospitalized. Those infants were admitted to the hospital, and some to the intensive-care unit.”
Also, at that Ursula center, lawyers met a 17-year-old Guatemalan, unable to stand due to complications from a C-section and attempting to care for her sick baby. Hope Frye, who lead the group of attorneys described the moment, “When we encountered the baby and her mom, the baby was filthy. They wouldn’t give her any water to wash her. And I took a Kleenex, and I washed around her neck black dirt.”
Meanwhile, on Twitter, Elizabeth McLaughlin described not only horrible conditions, but that the government seeks to move some detention locations to military bases where there is less ability for the public, such as the press or the watchdogs who are currently revealing the atrocities, to monitor the situation. The Trump administration offered support for such claims when it announced it planned to house immigrant children at Fort Sill, a current U.S. Army base that served as a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Across the country, people have been taking up the cry from McLaughlin’s Tweets, “Don’t look away.”
Just before the most recent reports of horrific conditions facing immigrant children broke, a United States attorney argued in court that Flores’ “safe and sanitary” requirement did not necessarily mean children should receive soap or toothbrushes or have adequate sleeping arrangements. Judge Tashima responded for most of us in saying, “To me it’s more like what Judge Fletcher says, it’s within everybody’s common understanding: If you don’t have a toothbrush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, it’s not safe and sanitary. Wouldn’t everybody agree to that? Do you agree to that?”
Now let’s be clear. The court arguments were over abuses under the Obama administration. However, the attorney’s position highlighted the Trump administration’s more deeply troubling practices at the border. As for those arguing, “Where were you when the Obama administration did this?”, perhaps it slipped their mind that plenty of people were up in arms over this inhumane treatment back then too. Concerns circulated about Customs and Border Patrol as well, and, back in, at least, 2016, I encountered discussions about whether ICE was too unaccountable and should be abolished. Plenty of folks questioned Obama’s deportation policies and the conditions in which immigrants were kept under his administration.
However, Trump has made things far, far worse and created a true crisis in the process. Holly Cooper, co-director of University of California, Davis’ Immigration Law Clinic, said, “In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention, I have never heard of this level of inhumanity.” This is not some one-off moment. The stories of abuses, excesses, and questionable behavior have never entirely left the news since shortly after Trump took office.
Nor has this situation been ignored. While there have been big spikes of public outcry, there also have been plenty of folks protesting the Trump administration’s actions on immigration all along. They protested before the horrors of the zero-tolerance family separation policy became known, and public outcry did not stop after last year’s initial “families belong together” furor began to subside. All of which brings us to the present moment.
Remembering Why People Flee Their Homes
On June 25, the news reported four people found dead on the U.S. side of the border crossing. Quoting from an NPR article, “U.S. Border Patrol agents have located four bodies by the Rio Grande in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, near the U.S. border with Mexico. Three of the deceased were children — one toddler and two infants — and the other was a 20-year-old woman…Officials say it appears the woman and children died from dehydration and heat exposure, but that the next step will be to determine the precise cause and manner of their deaths.”
I saw the article and thought about all the conservative headlines and arguments I have seen on Right-leaning friend’s social media pages. I could not take it anymore. As the Texas Civil Rights Project Tweeted, “When the government creates policies that make it harder to cross the border safely, people die. Children die. We have to shift our policies in favor of compassion.”
I knew more deaths were to come, and all I could think of was the image of three-year old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, who drowned in his family’s desperate attempt to flee to Europe. I took to Facebook and said:
Remember the photo of the Syrian boy, lying dead on the beach in 2015? Remember the international heartbreak? Remember how it forced most folks to take a step back and realize the desperation of the refugees’ plight and the need to show compassion not a shut door? Probably many of us in the U.S. consoled or contented ourselves with the thought that we didn’t have that in the U.S. That was some other country’s problem.
Well, it’s our problem now. Stop feeling like this doesn’t affect you or apply to you. It does. Our government has chosen to restrict or prevent processing through legal ports of entry. Our government has repeatedly threatened to shut down the border altogether. Our government has chosen create polices that hinder the courts’ ability to process asylum and immigration claims. Our government has attempted to limit or deny the basic human right to seek asylum (something recognized throughout the world). Our government has sought to cut off funding designed to stabilize the regions from which people are fleeing, so that conditions will worsen and more will have to flee. Our government has chosen to separate children from families, to confiscate possessions, and lock up children and adults, detaining them in deplorable conditions we would not allow convicted felons to endure. Our government has allowed people acting under the authority of the United States to sexually and otherwise abuse people in those facilities. People are dying under our government’s watch. Our government has attempted to paint these immigrant families desperately fleeing for their lives from drug lords and violent crime as being gang members, hardened criminals, drug runners, rapists, and not even human. And our government is doing this in our name.
And that means our government has created situations where more and more people will die either in the detention centers, some of which I have no problem calling concentration camps, or in the course of their desperate trek to try to escape death and violence in their homeland.
We arenot at an all-time high for immigration. We are not even close. Things don’t have to be this way. Not in the United States. We are a nation of immigrants. “E pluribus unum” celebrates our strength in being diverse. We should not be shutting the door on immigration, and we should not be so inhumane to the downtrodden. They aren’t asking for a handout but rather a chance.
When I posted to Facebook, I could not get the image of Alan Kurdi out of my head and wondered how long before we had a similar image by the Rio Grande. Only a few hours later, I had my heart-wrenching answer. An El Salvadoran family arrived in a Mexican border city hoping to apply for asylum, but the international bridge to the United States was closed for days. Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month old daughter, Valeria, drowned attempting to cross the Rio Grande in the father’s desperate bid to get to U.S. soil. The following morning, crying at another preventable tragedy brought about by my own country’s actions, I made this image:
When pondering how to handle immigration or refugees, we have to keep in mind why people flee their homes, especially for an uncertain future, in a strange land that speaks a foreign tongue. Warsan Shire’s poem “Home” captures the raw truth1:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
. . . .
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore.
. . . .
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
The vast majority of the people seeking to immigrate to the United States at the southern border are family units. They are fleeing unstable areas, where violent crime, drugs, starvation, and worse await them. They are fleeing the mouth of the shark. They seek legal asylum through ports of entry, but, if they can’t get that, they will try to enter without permission and ask forgiveness later. Not because they are deadbeats or criminals, but because they are terrified for their lives and the lives of their families. Anywhere is safer than what their home has become.
It's The U.S. Government That Is Inhumane
What the U.S. government is doing at the border is inhumane. When asked about not giving toothbrushes and soap to immigrant children this government has kept locked up, Vice-President (and an “I am holier than thou” Christian) Mike Pence evaded answering directly and tried to shift the blame by claiming it was Democrats’ fault for not giving more funding, although he seemed more focused on money for enforcement and adding more beds to DHS facilities then actually providing for the children’s needs.
On June 25, House Democrats called his bluff by approving a bill to provide $4.6 billion in emergency aid to relieve the conditions for detained immigrants at the border. The bill contained restrictions designed to ensure the aid went to assisting detainees and their living conditions, not expanding the administration’s immigration practices. For example, the bill sought to prevent funds being used for immigration enforcement or adding more beds to migrant processing and DHS facilities. The former has led to increased detentions, which has caused this crisis to come to a head in the first place, as even the Office of Inspector General noted. The latter best serves to line the pockets of private contractors running many facilities in the long run, and in the short run cannot be accomplished quickly enough to alleviate the suffering at the border right now.
The House Democrats’ caution is warranted, given the White House’s antics when it comes to forwarding its immigration policies. Just a few months ago, rather than make a deal with Congress, Trump caused the government to shut down and then declared a national emergency, so he could grab funds from the military in order to build his so-called border wall.
Most House GOP members voted against the House emergency aid bill, and the president promised to veto it, citing the restrictions on funding for expanded immigration enforcement and more beds. On June 26, the Senate approved its own version of the bill, which removed some of the House bill’s restrictions on how aid could be spent, as well as providing even more money for I.C.E. and funding for the Department of Defense. Many Democratic senators voted for the revised bill.
At first it appeared the stage was set for a bitter reconciliation process in the House. However, by June 27, centrist House Democrats from potentially vulnerable seats balked and pressured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into a vote on the Senate’s version of the bill, which passed, much to the dismay of many more liberal House Democrats.
Opposing the reprehensible evil being done at the border is a matter of humanity, not politics. Yet, when crunch-time came, many Republicans and Democrats alike voted for politics and to line the pockets of rich men, over guaranteeing relief would actually aid those truly suffering. For all of Pence’s Christian values, he got what he pushed for in those interviews, i.e., more bodies in detention, instead of charity for humans most in need of it.
We Have A Path Forward
Unlike our government, the rest of us, however, can be humane. We can and will act. Start with Lights for Liberty, which has planned vigils at detention centers around the country on the evening of Friday, July 12. Check the site to find an event near you. It there isn’t one already, think about creating your own.
We can do more. Unfortunately, donating products like soap and toothbrushes to the facilities in question won’t fix this problem. First of all, absent specific laws to the contrary, most government agencies, such as Customs and Border Patrol, cannot accept money or in-kind gifts for their own use. While it is frustrating in this instance, sound reason for the prohibition exists. Think of how much more undue influence large corporations or rich donors would have on government if they were allowed to target their donations to specific agencies directly. Instead, most donations first must go through the Department of the Treasury and then be allocated by Congress to the specific agency, which is far too long a process for those suffering at the border right now. Second, instilling terror in would-be immigrants is the point, so this administration would probably not bother distributing those donations anyway.
Don’t worry, though. There are places to which you can donate your time, money (one-time or regularly), toiletries, or even frequent-flyer miles. Civil rights and immigrant aid groups in the region and across the country need our help. Keep them in mind in the future as well. After the photo of Alan Kurdi circulated in 2015, there was a spike in donations to refugee aid organizations. However, after the initial rush, those agencies faded from the public mindset, while the need remained. We can do better. Here is a list of some of organizations to which you can donate to help those at the southern border:
- RAICES – A Texas agency that provides free or low-cost legal services to refugees and immigrants.
- Annunciation House – An El Paso, Texas organization that offers hospitality, education and advocacy to immigrants and refugees.
- Good Neighbor Settlement House – Offers respite care 24/7 for refugees released in the Brownsville, Texas region.
- Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project –Provides free legal and social services to immigrant detainees in Arizona
- Al Otro Lado – A California legal services organization that assists indigent migrants, refugees and deportees in Tijuana, Mexico
- Immigrant Justice Now – Provides supplies to immigrant families and children, from underwear to prepaid cellphones to bus tickets.
- Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project – Aids asylum seekers via online community support, emergency legal aid, and advocating for national systemic reform.
- Immigrant Families Together – Network of Americans committed to rapid response unification of separated immigrant families, including raising money for and paying bonds, arranging transportation, and assistance with finding resources and housing.
- Lawyers for Good Government – Offers legal services for immigrants, with a focus on providing Spanish speaking attorneys. Donations can be in the form of money, expertise or frequent-flyer miles. This site includes the Project Corazon Travel Fund sending attorneys to the border.
- International Refugee Assistance Project – Offers refugees legal representation, litigation services, and systemic advocacy.
- Immigrant Justice Corps – Provides legal representation to poor immigrants, including those seeking citizenship and fighting deportation.
- National Immigrant Justice Center – Chicago and Indiana immigration attorneys providing legal aid to immigrants and asylum seekers and advocating for immigration reform.
- National Bail Fund Network of the Community Justice Exchange – Lists national and community immigration bond funds. Donations into such funds will help pay the bonds of detained immigrants, which is one of the fastest ways to free and reunite immigrants with their families, and makes it eight times more likely they will win their immigration cases.
- Immigrant Defense Fund – Provides a variety of legal services for immigrants and immigrant communities, including detention and bond litigation.
- American Civil Liberties Union – Defends, preserves, and advocates for individual rights and liberties under the Constitution and U.S. laws.
- These linked New York Times and the Texas Tribune articles mention even more organizations for your consideration.
- Charity Navigator and CharityWatch can help you check out larger charities to which you consider donating.
March. Protest. Tell your congresspersons. Help out associations in a position to help the immigrants. And don’t look away, even after this current furor dies down. The mouth of the shark remains open wide, and people will continue to face the freedom to starve or detention in America in the hope of asylum. In “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”, Bruce Cockburn says, “You gotta kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight.” That’s just what we are going to do.
Ann Anderson is a contributing writer for Torchlight and, when time permits, for her own blog on social and political topics, Strigiforms.com. She has a familiarity with the legal profession, history, and an eclectic potpourri of informational tidbits. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.