Confronting Cruelty: Responding to the US-made crisis at the Border
(Originally posted to Medium)
I remember the first time I visited an immigration detention facility. I was a third-year law student who had landed an internship with an immigration project near the US border. We had been invited by Arthur Helton, the renowned refugee rights advocate who would die a year later in Baghdad on a humanitarian mission with UN, to tour and document conditions in the facility for US detainees.
I remember the cold feeling of the building, almost sterile. We met with detainees who had entered the US with asylum claims from all over the world. While they were adult men, none of them were prepared to be “jailed” upon arriving in the US, a country they believed held so much promise for them. Many were disoriented, all were terrified and on the verge of hopelessness.
Despite their difficult and for many unjust detainments, the treatment of those men seventeen years ago was far better than what is happening today to the most vulnerable asylum seekers. Fleeing countries without safety or security, the adults are being charged for crossing the border even though they are presenting themselves in compliance with US law. Transgender detainees are repeatedly put in the wrong facilities. Families are separated. As the numbers of detainees have grown, we are learning of new and private facilities housing children taken from parents. Far from sterile, we know that currently children are being kept in deplorable conditionswithout basic necessities or care. Teenagers are taking care of infants and toddlers who are handed to them by guards. Children are becoming ill and receiving little or no medical attention. US government lawyers are arguing that toothbrushes, toothpaste, access to showers and nutritious food are not “necessarily” essential to “safe and sanitary” conditions. Parents are given no information about the whereabouts of their children. As a mother of two little girls, I can barely imagine the embodied horror of not knowing if your children are in danger, scared or sick.
The abuse and politicization of the conditions of the most vulnerable in our society are not new in the United States. As an African American, I am well aware that no beacon like the Statue of Liberty greeted my ancestors as they entered the U.S. Our country was founded with slavery as a core institution. Slave children were viciously ripped away from their parents, sold, and often never received little proper love nor care. Native American children were massacred and killed through disease. Even late last century Native schools were used to separate Native children from their parents and culture. These atrocities have modern consequences and progeny. Our criminal justice system still subjugates and demonizes African Americans and Native Americans. Indeed, as much as our songs and creeds express, the United States has a track record of denying human dignity on the basis of race, culture, and geography when it achieves particular ends.
This track is clearly seen in the disparate treatment of immigrants. As shocking as our current situation is, its construction is underpinned by the history of US immigration policies. Race has always been used as a factor of exclusion (even though our definitions of race over time have changed). For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act illustrates how we have used immigration to achieve our aims (the building of the railroads) without extending the promise of liberty to those who toiled for that achievement. While seeking asylum is legal in the United States, we have criminalized the process. In the 1980s we interdicted Haitians seeking asylum at sea either to be returned to a fascist dictatorship in Haiti or to be detained at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Conditions were bad for those Haitian families and while it made the nightly news, we allowed the illegal and punishing policy to continue. Over the past fifty years, federal legislation, including the 1996 immigration legislation, has ensured that our immigration and criminal systems intersect and mirror each other in both institutionalization and abuses. This history and context, coupled with the incendiary and fascist rhetoric of the current president against immigrants, have made the abuse of children in these makeshift concentration camps virtually inevitable.
Despite the daily hits of wickedness from the Trump Administration, this particular moment is beginning to hit a chord. There is simply no negotiation when dealing with powerful people who use their power to harm the most vulnerable. Over the past few weeks a small group of advocates and activists teamed up with organizations dedicated to justice for immigrants to plan vigils for July 12, in a series of events known as Lights for Liberty: A Nationwide Vigil to End Human Detention Camps. What started out as five locations the vigil has grown to over 175 locations, with local organizations taking leadership and ownership of this community moment. Vigils are even planned internationally.
This is an opportunity to engage your neighbors and community members on the violence that is being perpetrated against people in our name. It is an opportunity to discuss the vital role immigrants play in our communities and to strategize on how we protect our undocumented neighbors from harm. It is also a moment to support the important work being done right in your community and at the border. While we are committed to the success of these vigils, our bigger aim is that US Americans go beyond shaking our heads in confusion or disgust, and instead demand that the Administration immediately change its punishing and reckless policies.