It was a big week for revelations about the shameful treatment of children in U.S. border detention camps. One particularly vile and overcrowded facility in Clint, Texas, had to be emptied of nearly 300 youngsters, the result of recent inspections that revealed inadequate water, food and sanitation with kids sleeping on cement floors without blankets and coming down with flu symptoms. The acting head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, John Sanders, announced his resignation. Yet there was at least one member of Congress who didn’t see this as a disgrace for the United States. He wondered why those kids don’t leave detention camps like Casa Padre in Brownsville, Texas, on their own.
“You know what?” Rep. Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican, told interviewer Chris Hayes on MSNBC on Monday. “There’s not a lock on the door. Any child is free to leave at any time, but they don’t. You know why? Because they are well taken care of.”
Actually, such facilities have locks. And if a child has the gumption to scale a wire fence and leave? Local law enforcement is notified. But, of course, it’s idiotic to even be talking about a child’s preference given that, oh, about 100 percent would rather have stayed with their families. They were involuntarily separated by the U.S. government and placed in the camps in the first place. But if you want callous indifference to young children, detention facilities at the U.S. southern border — and the folks who run them — are right up your alley.
Take, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice lawyer who argued in a federal appeals court this week that the administration had no obligation to provide the children with soap and toothbrushes and that the government had met its legal obligation to provide “safe and sanitary” facilities. That’s a level of inhumane that goes beyond maximum security prisons. Do Trump administration officials really believe life in the camps isn’t so bad — despite the overwhelming evidence that it is — or are they just parroting the approach of President Donald Trump who seems to think treating children badly, whether through separation or ill-treatment after separation, is an acceptable form of deterrence to those seeking asylum in the U.S.?
Few issues have gotten the alternative fact treatment like immigration since Mr. Trump took office. There were the false claims about the undocumented collecting government benefits like Social Security. There was his rhetoric about “rape caravans.” Or how the undocumented are responsible for the measles outbreak. And as recently as this past weekend, President Trump was back to claiming that one million undocumented people voted in California during the 2016 election. “California admitted to a million votes. They admitted to a million votes," he told Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press” last Sunday. It’s a claim so bogus that PolitiFact rates it “pants on fire,” for being so demonstrably untrue — both in 2016 and today.
Yet there’s something especially heinous about misrepresenting the suffering of children. Even the president seems to have softened his tone, telling reporters about how a humanitarian relief aid bill passed by the House a “humane bill … it’s about humanity, helping children.” Of course, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected it, passing instead a version that lacks the language the House adopted to prevent the administration from using the money to bolster enforcement.
If he was really concerned about the humanity of the situation, Mr. Trump could step in to resolve the difference between the chambers of Congress in the interests of helping vulnerable children. Barring that, he could at least acknowledge that so many of those seeking a better life in the United States aren’t rapists or gang members or drug dealers. Rather, they are like Oscar Alberto Martínez and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria. Those names might not be familiar, but their final photograph together might be: They were the two who drowned in the Rio Grande Sunday, their bodies lying side by side on the river bank among the reeds. They were from El Salvador and sought a better, safer life in the U.S. As asylum seekers, they might have chosen to cross at a safer, legal point of entry, but the Trump administration has clamped down on the asylum rules, particularly those that allow petitioners to stay in the United States.
Say what you will about the causes of the humanitarian crisis at the border, some facts are inescapable.