There’s no “civil” way to say it: The Trump administration is torturing immigrant children. A liberal television personality wept openly for these children a few days ago, and I’m glad she did.
But it's important to remember that these terrible events reflect more than the profoundly amoral nature of the Trump administration. The suffering of these children aren't an isolated incident. Their fate is shaped by decades of precedents, through forces that were too often shaped by the same government that torments them today.
As I write these words, my family is welcoming its newest member into this world. The joy of a new child’s birth heightens our natural human instinct for empathy. It makes it even more shocking that we now witness the brutality of a government - our government - as takes children, some as young as eighteen months old, from their parents.
Compassion and empathy for the youngest migrants have been awakened in many people. Empathy is a beautiful thing, but empathy is not enough. It’s time to remember that we also bear historical and moral responsibilities for the plight of these children, so we can dedicate ourselves to stopping the violence against them is all its forms.
The Brutal Choir
It's hard for some of us to imagine what it must be like to be someone who can promote and defend a policy like that of the Trump administration towards migrant children. It's hard to imagine that such people are Christians, too, and not just because the Bible says we should welcome the stranger at our door. It also says that Jesus Christ was born a refugee child.
What brutal choir sings for this congregation?
When the policy of systematic child abuse proved untenable, the Trump administration turned its child victims into hostages. The White House says it ended this policy, but it's lying. It's apparently using these children as pawns, detaining them until it's given the power to detain whole families indefinitely.
The White House has given conflicting explanations for its actions, but Chief of Staff John Kelly and Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions III both said explicitly that its goal is to deter other people from attempting to enter the United States.
There is a word for people who punish the innocent to change the behavior of others. The word is “terrorist.”
Empire of ICE
The best that can be hoped for in a situation like this is that it becomes a teaching moment. Hopefully, the outpouring of support and empathy these children are receiving lead to a deeper conversation and understanding of the forces that drive our immigration crisis.
It’s hard to imagine any horror greater than a child in a cage. The image fixes itself indelibly in the empathetic mind. But we should ask ourselves: how did the institutions that placed them there come into existence?
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency was created by the Homeland Security Act of 2002. ICE’s reputation for abusive and cruel treatment did not begin when Sessions announced the child separation policy.
Under President Trump, ICE has expanded the reach and aggressiveness of its actions. It has been criticized for its treatment of Muslims since Trump took office. It has also taken more forceful action inside the United States, conducting raids on homes and workplaces. ICE has even set up roadblocks on public highways and demanded that travelers provide identification, a move that is being challenged in court.
But ICE was aggressive under President Obama, too. The Obama Administration deported 2.4 million people, a record-setting number that prompted one Latinx leader to describe President Obama as the “Deporter-in-Chief.” According to ICE data, more than 40 percent of those deported had never been convicted of a crime. Most of the others had been found guilty of only minor offenses, such as traffic violations.
Writing in The Nation, activists Marisa Franco and Carlos Garcia described a massive expansion of the immigrant policing apparatus under President Obama. “When he leaves office,” they wrote in 2016,” (Obama) will leave behind to his successor the most sophisticated and well-funded human-expulsion machine in the history of the country.”
The temporary shelters that house these children were also created before Trump. The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found 1,224 reports of children being sexually abused between 2010 and 2017 while in immigration custody. Roughly half of the reported abusers were ICE employees. According to internal documents, however, ICE investigated less than 3 percent of the complaints received. Where were its leaders, of either party?
Reveal News reports that taxpayers have paid more than $1.5 billion over the last four years to house immigrant children with private companies that have been found to have committed “serious lapses in care, including neglect and sexual and physical abuse.”
In Texas, where most of the Trump administration’s child victims are first detained, state inspectors found more than 400 deficiencies among administrators. They include “staff members’ failure to seek medical attention for children” for injuries that include a burn, a broken wrist, and a sexually transmitted disease. As Reveal reports, “Inspectors also cited homes for ‘inappropriate contact’ between children and staff, including a case in which a staff member gave children a pornographic magazine.”
One of the worst of those vendors, Shiloh Treatment Center in Manvel, TX, was the primary subject of a Houston Chronicle exposé in 2014. Children there were under the jurisdiction of the Office for Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services. The Chronicle report strongly questioned ORR’s oversight of these homes.
These children deserve our tears, too.
Made in the USA
One question remains: Why did these children’s families leave home in the first place? Again, the answers lie, in large part, with U.S. policy. The United States government has intervened in the internal politics of Central American countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador for more than a century. It has trained Latin American military officers in techniques that include illegal techniques of torture and interrogation, often at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas.
All across Latin America for decades, the U.S. backed right-wing politicians and governments who enforced austerity policies that harmed both the economies and the environments of these countries. This was not an anomaly: U.S. support for Central American dictators and strongmen was not limited to Republican administrations.
When a coup overthrew the democratically elected government of Honduras in 2009, the Obama administration did not demand that the elected president be reinstated.
That omission was duly noted by the military leaders of that country, which conducted its own, carefully managed election instead. Before her death, indigenous leader Berta Caceres singled out Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her role in legitimizing the coup.
Calculating the Cost
In Honduras, nearly one-fourth of children under the age of five suffer from stunted growth as the result of malnutrition. 2 percent die before reaching the age of five. 14 percent of children are engaged in forced labor. 74 percent live below the national poverty line.
Guatemala, whose U.S.-backed former dictator, Ríos Montt, was charged and found guilty of genocide for ordering the mass killings in indigenous Mayan communities, has the highest percentage of chronically malnourished children (44 percent) in Latin America. As of the year 200, 44 percent of children under the age of five were stunted.
In El Salvador, the United States was actively involved supporting right-wing forces during that country’s thirteen-year civil war, which spanned the Reagan and Bush years. 75,000 people died in that war. As Robert Bonner notes, a United Nations Truth Commission found that “more than 85 percent of the killings, kidnappings, and torture had been the work of government forces, which included paramilitaries, death squads, and army units trained by the United States.” The victims included the nation’s widely admired Catholic archbishop, Oscar Romero,
In an eerie foreshadowing of things to come, U.S.-backed fascist forces in El Salvador kidnapped hundreds of children from their parents. Most never came home.
El Salvador was wracked with poverty and crime in the wake of this war. Gangs formed, initially to protect neighborhoods from outside marauders. But the American policy of deporting its urban gang members in the 1990s brought U.S.-style gang culture to that nation, spawning the rise of MS-13 and other feared groups. It is now widely understood that the right-wing ARENA party’s repressive policies, later adopted by its opponents, made the problem even worse.
From Us, To Us
Today, many mothers and fathers in these countries are so desperate to escape this poverty and violence that they’re willing to subject their families to the hardships and dangesr of fleeing on foot to the United States. And these countries only represent a part of Central and South America. For decades, the heavy hand of American interference has left its mark across other countries, too, often leaving poverty and violence in its wake.
Many of today's immigrants seeking refuge from poverty, persecution, and violence aren’t just fleeing to United States. In a real sense, they are also fleeing from it – or, more accurately, from the results of its actions in their home countries.
Compassion and empathy are beautiful things. As Americans, however, we don’t have the luxury of leaving it at that. We must also accept responsibility for their plight. Yes, we must end Trump’s brutal policy – truly end it, and without restoring other brutal policies like indefinite action.
But we must also accept the historical fact that many of these children are refugees because of us. As a nation, we should protect and care for them and their families – not just to do good, but to make amends.
The roots of this crisis span both Republican and Democratic administrations. That doesn’t mean that both political parties are identical. The Carter administration made human rights a foreign-policy goal for the first time ended some of our worst Latin American abuses, for example, while the Reagan administration apparently never met a fascist dictator it didn’t love.
But Democrats need to understand that the responsibility is not one party’s alone. Democratic presidents from Kennedy to Obama have played their part in Latin America’s misery. Democrats are more likely to use the language of human rights than their Republican counterparts, but history will judge whether that reflects idealism or hypocrisy.
It’s time we used our compassion and empathy to look into the history of these countries, and our role in them. More importantly, it's time to to look into ourselves, so we can change the policies that displaced these children and their families in the first place. That means ending our love affairs with dictators, abolishing ICE, and providing economic restitution to the countries – and to the people – we have hurt. It also means criticizing leaders from either political party when they support repressive regimes.
Our family’s new baby is healthy and safe. We want that for everyone’s children. I'm sure you do, too. But while we’re weeping for the children at the border, let’s weep for the ones at home, too – and for the ones who are no longer here to see our tears.
And when the tears are done, we must treat each immigrant as we would want to be treated ourselves. That means welcoming the strangers at the door -- and rebuilding the homes, lives, economies, and nations we helped to destroy.