A photo of migrant children lying down in cages.

US Customs and Border Patrol

Explain This

US Customs and Border Patrol

Locking Up Children in Cages Is Just the Beginning

The Trump administration’s violent, nationalist, xenophobic efforts to destroy immigrants are careening toward Nazi Germany-level evil.

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Back in the middle of Trump’s 2016 campaign, people started pointing out that his rallies were distressingly Nazi-like. They had violence. Attendees lashed out at journalists for doing their jobs. Trump and his supporters demanded his opponent be locked up. Underpinning it all, vicious and constant anti-immigrant rhetoric. And then Trump got elected and things became much, much worse—and much faster than any of us could have imagined. Now, we’re firmly in a place where the parallels to the early years of Nazi Germany are inescapable.

Trump and his ilk hate a lot of people: LGBTQ people, low-income people, people of color, blue-state people, liberal people … the list goes on. But his greatest ire has always been reserved for immigrants, particularly undocumented ones. And that’s where things have gotten really awful: watching our government dehumanize an entire class of people, complete with raids on their homes, putting their children in cages, and refusing to let stay in the country when they face certain death back home.

Trump’s helpmate in all of this is his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Sessions has a long and dishonorable history of hating non-white immigrants. Well before getting tapped as the attorney general, Sessions gave an interview to Steve Bannon and praised a 1924 immigration law that was written to restrict immigration by the (then-disfavored) Italians, Jewish people, and individuals from the Middle East. It also entirely barred Asian people from immigrating to the United States. At his confirmation hearing, he indicated he supported Operation Streamline, which handles unlawful Southwest border crossings via very cursory hearings. He’s as committed as Trump is to treating immigrants as less than human.

Almost immediately after taking office, Trump ordered the Muslim ban. It was a gut punch, but it wasn’t a surprise because it was one of Trump’s major campaign issues. Though the ban’s been tied up in court with numerous lawsuits (and the administration has lost again and again), we’re still awaiting a Supreme Court decision. With a conservative Supreme Court, it’s very likely they could bar people from several Muslim-majority nations from ever entering the United States.

Right now, it appears Trump’s hatred of Muslims is being eclipsed by his hatred of Latin American immigrants. His campaign was predicated on building an actual wall to keep America “safe” from Mexican immigrants. He refers to unauthorized immigrants “animals.” And Sessions has been helping to implement more and more restrictive and inhumane policies.

The Trump administration isn’t just interested in going after unauthorized or undocumented immigrants. They’re trying to denaturalize people—to strip them of their citizenship. It’s a tool used to take citizenship away from people who committed some sort of “wrongdoing” to get their green card or become a citizen. It’s also an incredibly rare process: The DOJ has filed approximately 300 cases in the last 28 years. Under Trump, though, DHS is hiring “several dozen” people to review cases and examine “potentially a few thousand cases.” They’re doing this by digitizing old fingerprint files and comparing them to the fingerprints of foreigners applying for legal residency. It’s a massive amount of effort for what may be relatively few cases, but it has the net effect of casting a pallor of fear over the entire enterprise of immigration.

It’s much worse than that, however. A few weeks ago, it became clear that families were being separated at the border. This is true whether those families are undocumented individuals trying to enter the country without authorization or whether they are families seeking asylum. Sessions and Trump put both types of families in one bucket: criminals. However, seeking asylum is a protected human right, and the United States is obliged to accept refugees pursuant to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The only way to request asylum from the United States is to present yourself at a port of entry. Doing so doesn’t make you a criminal—it makes you a person exercising a basic human right that the United States has agreed it will provide.

One way you can criminalize asylum-seekers is to close ports of entry. It forces asylum seekers to either turn around or to try to enter the country without a visa. That’s what’s happening right now in McAllen, Texas. The border patrol is telling asylum seekers the bridge there is closed, so families cross the river on a raft instead. Then, they try to turn themselves in to border patrol to ask for asylum but they’re prosecuted instead.

Another way the Trump administration is going to deal with the issue of people requesting asylum is to drastically limit exactly who can seek asylum. In order to seek asylum, you have to prove you have a legitimate fear of persecution in your own country, based on your race, nationality, religion, political views, or membership in a particular social group. Under Obama, “particular social group” included women who were victims of domestic violence. Now, victims of what Sessions calls “private violence”—such as domestic abuse and gang violence—no longer have adequate grounds to seek asylum.

Sessions—who as Attorney General, can reverse any Board of Immigration decision—signaled this change by overturning a decision that granted asylum to a woman from El Salvador who had experienced severe domestic abuse. The woman faced horrifying acts of domestic violence. For 15 years, she’d been regularly beaten and raped by her husband. She went to the police, but was told they couldn’t intervene unless they caught her husband in the act of harming her.

This, then, is the line that Sessions drew in the sand: A woman who was brutalized by her husband and unprotected by law enforcement will be sent back to El Salvador, where her ex-husband has also threatened to kill her and throw her body in a river. But Sessions isn’t concerned about women and, of course, likely doesn’t see harm to women as a real issue generally, much less cause for asylum.

Sessions is also the architect and major proponent of family separations. In early May, he announced that the DOJ would partner with the Department of Homeland Security to prosecute everyone caught crossing the border without authorization. But he didn’t stop there: He proclaimed he would separate parents from their children if they did so.

Over the last six weeks, nearly 2,000 children have been separated from parents who are facing criminal charges for crossing the border without authorization. It’s an unbearable cruelty, an act that creates a national wound and will leave a scar—and it’s that which is most Nazi-like. You can’t easily come back from being the country that will rip a breastfeeding infant from her mother’s breast. You can’t easily come back from being the country that tells parents you’re taking their child for a bath, only to never return. (And let’s not even get into how much lying to parents about taking their children away for a bath sounds like lying to parents about taking their children away for a shower, when instead they were gassed to death.)

Instead of staying with their parents, these children are placed in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). That office is responsible for placing the children with a stateside sponsor. However, last month, HHS announced that it would, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), start fingerprinting every potential sponsor—a move that is surely designed to deter immigrant relatives from coming forward to help these children.

While children await processing after being removed from their parents, they’re in cages. Literal cages. When the Associated Press was allowed to see a border facility on Sunday, they saw a cage with 20 children, strewn with water bottles, chips, and foil sheeting for blankets. There are only portable toilets and the warehouse lights stay on 24/7.

It doesn’t get any better after that. After the initial processing, boys are housed in places like a converted Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, near the Mexican border. They’re put through an intake that includes vaccination and checking for sexually transmitted diseases. They’re also greeted by a mural of Donald Trump, complete with an “inspirational” quote from Art of the Deal: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.” (It’s unclear how that would inspire migrant children ripped from their parents.) They sleep five to a “room”—actually a doorless enclave with walls that only reach halfway to the ceiling. They can make two phone calls per week, so reaching their (possibly incarcerated) parents is nearly impossible.

As those sorts of shelters get too crowded, older boys are being moved to tent cities. In a terrifying display of efficiency, the government confirmed on June 14 that it had chosen a site in Tornillo, Texas, to build a tent city, and by June 15, it was up and running. It has the existing capacity to house 360, and 100 children are already there. There’s a discussion whether to expand it to house 4,000. The average high temperature in Tornillo in June is 96 degrees.

These are all startling, untenable numbers.

Of course, it’s the American way that these brutal governmental actions lead to private profit. A private company, Southwest Key, runs some of these shelters, including the converted Walmart, and they’ve received $1.1 billion in government funds since 2014. Southwest Key hit a rough patch financially last year when the government apparently didn’t need to warehouse enough children, but the Trump administration’s efforts to separate families ensure that Southwest Key is now making bank.

Southwest Key is also part of a concerted and deeply disturbing  effort to normalize the detention centers where children are held. The New York Times ran an oddly glowing portrait of the converted Walmart, lauding the movies children are shown, the haircuts they can get, and the vegetables they’re served—eliding over the fact that these children are there without their parents and are not able to  leave. They’re functionally in jail—it’s still a jail even if the kids get to watch Moana. Southwest Key enthusiastically tweeted out the Times’ coverage.

All of this ignores the fact that taking children from their parents is not only an objectively evil thing to do—it can actually create a condition called “toxic stress” in children. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, visited one of the shelters run by ORR. She found that yes, the children were cared for and fed, and provided with toys and other distractions. However, shelter workers are forbidden from t picking up or comforting the children, or getting the parents for them, and other children are forbidden from hugging one another or touching them in any way. This disconnection from parents can lead, Kraft says, to a disruption in brain development that creates massive emotional trauma and can, in turn, lead to physical health problems. In other words, we’re not just causing these children short-term agony. We’re causing them long-term harm.

It’s no surprise that the monsters behind these policies seek to hide behind the Bible to justify their acts. Jeff Sessions gave a speech to a friendly audience of law enforcement officials and explained that migrant families are to blame for having their children taken from them and that separating families like that isn’t unusual. He quoted Romans 13:

“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution … I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” Sessions said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves … and protect the weak and it protects the lawful.”

This reading of the Bible demands blind allegiance to the government, no matter what the government does. Theologians immediately pointed out this is the same verse that has been used to defend slavery. It was also, apparently, a verse well-liked by Hitler and used by the Third Reich to justify their rule. Quite the company Sessions is keeping.

It makes a warped sort of sense, however. Trump, Sessions, and their kind are deeply authoritarian. They aren’t interested in there being any daylight between a ruler in heaven and a ruler here on Earth.

It isn’t all Nazi parallels, however. There’s some terrifyingly Orwellian aspects of what is going on here right now too, as Trump’s latest dishonest tactic is to blame e Democrats for the border separation policy. This in spite of the fact that there is no law requiring that children be separated from their parents when the parents have crossed the border without authorization. This in spite of the fact that then-DHS Secretary John Kelly publicly confirmed that the Trump administration was considering splitting up families at the border as far back as March 2017. This in spite of the fact that Senior White House Advisor Stephen MIller pushed the “zero-tolerance” plan all along.

Trump and his administration could undo this cruelty tomorrow. But they won’t. Trump isn’t even certain he’d sign his own party’s bill that would end the practice. Not to mention the fact that his own party really can’t get their act together and get anything done. They don’t like the Democrats’ plan to end things and they still want detentions, even if they end family separations. They’re interested in tut-tutting over how awful the policy is, but not terribly interested in ending it.

Holding these children literally hostage is nothing but a negotiating tool to Trump. It’s cruelty in the service of a larger goal—draconian restrictions on immigration, including a border wall and a shift to so-called merit-based immigration. But it’s also cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

Most of all, it’s yet another lurch toward a brand of vicious fascism that Trump told us was coming all along.

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