Vice President Pence stood before nearly 400 caged men, crowded together inside enclosed fencing, unshowered and kept warm by thermal blankets, some of them jeering. Was it smugness on his face? Or just the realization that this would be hard to spin? He was standing only feet away, looking at the migrants a bit as though they were a part of a species he regarded as similar but not quite the same.
But spin he must, and so he tried. “The American people can see this crisis is real,” he said after visiting the detention center in McAllen, Tex., on Friday. This is evidence, he said, of a system that was “overwhelmed.”
Clever wording. Call it a crisis, and it might become so. But to believe Pence requires ignoring the geographic distinction between the forces driving immigration to the border and the conditions awaiting the newcomers inside the United States. The Trump administration is using the generic “crisis” language to blur the line between the chaos of the situation along the border (which has many fathers) and the incompetence of its response (which has but one).
The challenges at the border are a crisis, but our response does not need to be. The system is not overwhelmed. Texas has power, light, water, WiFi. This isn’t Haiti after the earthquake or New Orleans after Katrina. A crisis is, by definition, a disruption of standard operating procedures when the systems of response are unable to adapt to the situation, when moving people, commodities or goods from Point A to Point B can’t be done. A crisis occurs when the supply chain is so disrupted that medicine or emergency care can’t travel, water can’t be distributed, and food is hard to come by. None of that is taking place, in the United States, no matter how close to the border.
The deprivations of space, clothing, showers and hygiene we see in these facilities are just supply chain problems. And we, as a nation, are pretty good at supply chain solutions. We know how to move people, commodities and goods, especially when the winds aren’t blowing and the earth isn’t shaking.
So, how should this be working? We’ve done it before. The administration could easily set up an incident command structure, under known and universal standards, and dial up a surge. It could create emergency support function leads in various agencies, including the National Guard, to address shelter, care, water, specialized needs and security. It could establish a broader, unified command to ensure interagency and interstate coordination so that information is shared, children are identified and family unification is the priority.
This isn’t rocket science. It might sound complicated, but it’s a set of practices long known to be the foundation of emergency management, sort of like the way actuarial tables are for insurance adjusters. There is a vocabulary and a blueprint that crisis managers use to solve problems, assuming those in charge want them to be solved.
What Pence saw is a failure of his government to initiate well-practiced standards for public health and safety, not the failure of our immigration policy that the administration — more than two years in office — blames on everyone but itself. As a matter of mere execution, it is quite easy to surge showers and shelters and toothbrushes and soap to a detention facility on the border; to engage outside experts to assist in child care, education and clothing distribution; to get human beings cots to sleep on and showers to wash themselves in.
Some might argue that the cruelty is the administration’s real goal, to drive newcomers off and make them feel unwelcome. But even taking motive out of the equation, it is essential that we distinguish between immigration policy and the civilized standards of detention. Even if the former can’t be solved tomorrow, the latter is a logistical puzzle. And the failure to solve it isn’t one of capacity or skill or supply chain or, as Pence argued in Texas, congressional funding. It’s a crisis only because the administration is choosing it to be.