This weekend, the New York Times ran an exposé of the appalling conditions at the now-notorious Border Patrol station in Clint, Tex. The facility has become a de facto prison, holding up to 700 children, including some as young as 5 months old. The Times report confirms what lawmakers, lawyers, and even Department of Homeland Security inspectors have found: namely, that conditions are “filthy and overcrowded” and “that some children had no beds to sleep on, no way to clean themselves and sometimes went hungry.” The Times report reads like a scene from Dante: “Outbreaks of scabies, shingles and chickenpox were spreading among the hundreds of children who were being held in cramped cells, agents said. The stench of the children’s dirty clothing was so strong it spread to the agents’ own clothing — people in town would scrunch their noses when they left work. The children cried constantly.”
All Americans should be ashamed and appalled that such abuses are being committed in their names. But the most powerful person in the entire country gives every appearance that he could not care less.
In a Twitter response, President Trump focused his outrage not on DHS but on the Times, which, he claimed (based on no evidence, whatsoever), “is writing phony and exaggerated accounts.” Trump tweeted that “Border Patrol, and others in Law Enforcement, have been doing a great job,” while blaming all problems on undocumented immigrants (“people should not be entering our Country illegally”) and Democrats who “won’t change the Loopholes and Asylum.” Remarkably enough, Trump even claimed vindication: “We said there was a Crisis — the Fake News & the Dems said it was ‘manufactured.’ Now all agree we were right.”
As usual, Trump is rewriting President Harry S. Truman’s motto to read: “The buck stops somewhere else.” Instead of accepting responsibility for what has gone wrong and trying to fix it, the president is intent on blaming others — from the children being held in inhumane conditions to an opposition party that exercises no power over the border. Trump’s most ludicrous claim, faithfully echoed by journalistic lapdogs such as Byron York of the Washington Examiner, is that recent events show that he was right all along about the border “crisis.”
Trump was claiming a border crisis when he declared his presidential candidacy in 2015, warning of rapists, drug dealers and other criminals supposedly swarming in from Mexico. That year, 331,333 undocumented immigrants were detained along the southern border — down from 479,371 a year earlier and from 1.1 million a decade earlier. The number rose in 2016 (407,870), fell again in 2017 (303,916), and rose again in 2018 (396,579) — but still remained a fraction of the totals from earlier decades. No wonder so many people, including me, denied that a crisis existed.
Only this year has there been a dramatic increase in arrivals. The number of apprehensions in May (144,278) was the highest total for that month in 19 years before reportedly falling to 87,000 in June. But the people who are arriving aren’t the criminals Trump warned of. They are primarily families and unaccompanied children.
If the president foresaw this crisis, why didn’t he prepare for it? Why are Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services so unready to handle so many children? Building a border wall is not the solution to this humanitarian emergency but a distraction from it — and a drain of critically needed resources.
This crisis is not a vindication of Trump but an indictment of him. The horrors along the border are caused by the cruelty and incompetence of his administration. With his dehumanizing rhetoric — he has called undocumented immigrants “animals” who “breed” and “infest” — Trump has sent a signal to federal agents that they have carte blanche to be as brutal as they want to be.
That this message has been received loud and clear is apparent from the tenor of conversation on a Facebook page used by some 9,500 current and former Border Patrol agents. As revealed by ProPublica, “group members responded with indifference and wisecracks to the post of a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant who died in May while in custody at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas. One member posted a GIF of Elmo with the quote, ‘Oh well.’ ” And, just like Trump, group users displayed contempt for Democratic lawmakers visiting border facilities, encouraging agents to hurl a “burrito at these b----s” and calling them “hoes” and “scum buckets.”
There should be better supervision of the rank and file, but it’s hardly possible when Trump has purged DHS’s senior ranks, firing anyone deemed insufficiently tough on immigrants. Only 41 percent of DHS’s top jobs are currently filled by confirmed appointees. The administration’s inhumane ethos was captured by the Justice Department lawyer who argued that children in detention aren’t entitled to soap, toothbrushes or beds. In other words, they should be treated worse than the Taliban or Somali pirates treat their captives.
What the Trump administration is doing doesn’t warrant comparison with the Nazis, but it is bad enough. This administration will forever be remembered for consigning children to cages. Just as border agents cannot escape the stench of overcrowded facilities, so Trump, along with his administration minions and Republican enablers, will never escape responsibility for this horror show. The stink will never wash off.