It Is Difficult to Quantify What We Did to People at the Border, But 545 Kids Is One Metric

Jack Holmes
·6-min read
Photo credit: Handout - Getty Images
Photo credit: Handout - Getty Images

From Esquire

There was a line of men holding sheets of paper in one hand and their children's hands in the other. It was Fathers Day, 2018, and they were lined up between two of the many human cages at the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas. A converted warehouse with tentacled networks of exposed silver piping on the ceiling, it was opened in 2014 in response to a huge surge of Central American refugees, many of them children, who were arriving at the southern border—a testament to the Obama administration's part in creating what experts told me last year constitutes a system of concentration camps.

But there was something materially different from the Obama days in June 2018: the Trump administration had adopted a "zero-tolerance" policy on prosecuting immigration offenses that led inevitably to separating children from their parents. We now know this was the explicit intent of the policy. And looking at the line of men and the little figures next to them, I wondered whether this would be the last time they'd be holding hands for a while.

By that time, the administration had formally admitted the policy was in place, even if the president began to lie and obfuscate about its origins and intent when it became a public relations problem. But we soon learned that the Trump regime had actually instituted a pilot program for the policy along certain parts of the border even earlier, in 2017, and that it had done so with absolutely no regard for the human lives that would be caught in the gears of the nationalist machine. We know this because a federal judge had to appoint lawyers to identify families who were separated in this early period. On Tuesday, NBC News reported those lawyers said in a court filing that they cannot find the parents of 545 of those children.

Lawyers appointed by a federal judge to identify migrant families who were separated by the Trump administration say that they have yet to track down the parents of 545 children and that about two-thirds of those parents were deported to Central America without their children, according to a filing Tuesday from the American Civil Liberties Union...

Unlike the 2,800 families separated under zero tolerance in 2018, most of whom remained in custody when the policy was ended by executive order, many of the more than 1,000 parents separated from their children under the pilot program had already been deported before a federal judge in California ordered that they be found.

It is difficult to quantify the scale of the abuses here, and the stain on this country that will persist for generations. This will be another item on the bill of indictment for the United States' abuses in South and Central America, some of which likely fueled the current instability in Honduras and El Salvador which is driving people to flee north—and, in turn, to be victimized again by the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

Photo credit: JIM WATSON - Getty Images
Photo credit: JIM WATSON - Getty Images

In case the stakes of what we've done to these people—and since it was done in our name, by a president we elected under our idiotic system, it was "we" who did it—is still not clear, Caitlin Dickerson of the New York Times just resurfaced a story she did in June of 2019. In it, she profiles the people who are trying to care for children whose parents have been ripped away from them and deported, perhaps never to be found.

Many of the parents of children on [Alma Acevedo's] caseload ended up being deported, ending any hope of a quick reunion. When that happened, she would meet with her fellow caseworkers and staff therapists, sometimes for hours, to discuss how to break the news to the child. They used pictures and puppets to illustrate the distance between the United States and countries like Guatemala. And they spoke in intentionally vague terms to avoid making false promises about when the children might be able to see their parents again, after learning the hard way that even those who were barely old enough to talk would latch on to any concrete expectation.

“We would have to say, ‘In many, many days you will be reunited with your parent, but we have to do a lot of paperwork,’ ” she told me, mimicking the soft voice she would use with an upset child. “The kids would still be like, ‘O.K., when am I going?’ They would start crying and it wasn’t just tears, it was screams.”

Remember this when people like Miles Taylor, the former Homeland Security apparatchik, try to refashion themselves into Trump Resistance Heroes. And remember it whenever you see the name of Rod Rosenstein, the then-deputy attorney general whose exploits in ratfucking the Mueller investigation pale in comparison to his crimes against human beings at the border. Rosenstein went out of his way to make sure kids, no matter how young they were, would be torn from their parents' arms. "Per the A.G.’s policy," he wrote in a memo, "we should NOT be categorically declining immigration prosecutions of adults in family units because of the age of a child." This featured as part of a Justice Department inspector general's report that found "the Justice Department’s top officials were 'a driving force' behind the policy."

Photo credit: GREG NASH - Getty Images
Photo credit: GREG NASH - Getty Images

The group Genocide Watch issued a bulletin back in June 2018, at the height of the formal separation policy, warning that it was "a violation of international human rights law and US constitutional protections of people within US borders," and "it constitutes torture, a crime under US and international law with universal jurisdiction and no immunity for the government officials who practice it." Perhaps more to their point, the organization added:

Forced family separations, the caging of human beings, and the detention of persons who have committed no crimes are among the warning indicators of the early stages of the genocidal process that Genocide Watch tracks in abusive countries around the world...Family separation can also be an indicator of the development of genocidal ideologies and policies. It is an early warning sign of future crimes against humanity.

(And make no mistake—there were cages. I saw them in McAllen. Each chain-link enclosure had its own chain-link roof. The facility has, for this reason, developed a nickname: "the dog kennel.")

As historians who study concentration-camp systems told me last year, the dehumanizing rhetoric from the most powerful people in our society—including the president, as Genocide Watch noted in its warning—combines with the dehumanizing conditions in which people are placed to prepare the ground for worse crimes. Along the way, these facilities, which exist in the no man's land between war and civil society, a gray area where people are stripped of their human rights, become hunting rounds for predators and abusers. As of October 20, 2020, we know what we've done to 545 kids and many others, but it's hard not to think there is still more to learn about what's been going on in the cages behind the walls. It's hard not to wonder what will happen if the current regime is allowed to continue in power.

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