Women Detained at Border
Credit: TIME/YouTube Screen Capture

To read the news about America’s immigration policy is to enter a house of horrors. Consider just a few headlines and descriptions:

Doctor compares conditions at immigrant holding centers to ‘torture facilities’

The disturbing, first-hand account of the conditions were observed by lawyers and a board-certified physician in visits last week to border patrol holding facilities in Clint, Texas, and McAllen, a city in the southern part of the state.

The descriptions paint a bleak image of horrific conditions for children, the youngest of whom is 2 1/2 months old…

After assessing 39 children under the age of 18, she described conditions for unaccompanied minors at the McAllen facility as including “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.”

All the children who were seen showed evidence of trauma, Lucio Sevier reported, and the teens spoke of having no access to hand washing during their entire time in custody. She compared it to being “tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease.”

There is a stench. No soap and overcrowding in detention centers for migrant children

A chaotic scene of sickness and filth is unfolding in an overcrowded border station in Clint, Tex., where hundreds of young people who have recently crossed the border are being held, according to lawyers who visited the facility this week. Some of the children have been there for nearly a month.

Children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met, the lawyers said. Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants. Teenage mothers are wearing clothes stained with breast milk.

Most of the young detainees have not been able to shower or wash their clothes since they arrived at the facility, those who visited said. They have no access to toothbrushes, toothpaste or soap.

Detained migrant children got no toothbrush, no soap, no sleep. It’s no problem, government argues.

The government went to federal court this week to argue that it shouldn’t be required to give detained migrant children toothbrushes, soap, towels, showers or even half a night’s sleep inside Border Patrol detention facilities.

The position bewildered a panel of three judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on Tuesday, who questioned whether government lawyers sincerely believed they could describe the temporary detention facilities as “safe and sanitary” if children weren’t provided adequate toiletries and sleeping conditions. One circuit judge said it struck him as “inconceivable.”

The first question facing decent citizens of a country where this is happening: how do we fix it immediately? The answer isn’t clear, but certainly lawsuits, protests, and public shaming of everyone involved should be part of the equation.

The second question: how do we hold the perpetrators accountable? These unconscionable policies aren’t the result of inadequate oversight or cash-strapped agencies doing their best under impossible conditions. Ignoring the fact that the United States is the wealthiest country in the world and could put these children up in lavish luxury with barely a second’s thought if it wanted to, it’s important to remember that this cruelty is intentional.

White supremacists like Trump adviser Stephen Miller wanted to discourage non-white adults from seeking asylum in the United States by making them afraid that their children would be separated from them forever and tortured in government facilities. There is no credible policy rationale for any of it: demand for low-skill labor in the agricultural and construction sectors is still high. California literally doesn’t have enough construction workers to build the housing it needs to create affordable housing for those unlucky enough to have been born a generation too late to cash in on the low-cost real estate investment lottery. Ideally, the legal immigration quota would be increased to accommodate desperate migrants displaced by gang violence resulting from America’s failed drug policies. In the absence of humane immigration policies, it’s hardly a significant policy problem if a few asylum seekers slip through the cracks, compared to the immediate crises of healthcare, wages, infrastructure, housing, and climate that demand policymakers’ attention.

Moreover, the Trump administration has been spending like a drunken sailor on guns, military spending increases, and raising tariffs in an ostensible attempt to create jobs for Trump’s favored constituencies. Certainly, Trump could both claim a crisis at the border and, at the same time, he could massively increase resources for migrant detention facilities, boosting jobs in states like Arizona and Texas that are threatening to leave the Republican fold.

Since the cruelty is so obviously deliberate, so, too, must be the accountability for carrying it out. The conditions are almost certainly a violation of multiple human rights statutes. Simply following orders isn’t an excuse any more than it is—or ever was—in any other depraved regime. And those who gave the orders must be held accountable above all: Miller, Trump, Nielsen and all the rest. It starts with impeachment inquiries.

But even when this shameful administration is gone, it will be crucial not to let bygones be bygones. Justice and basic morality will demand that all of these people be held fully to account for what they did here. Otherwise it will almost certainly happen again.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.