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Opinion Gov. Abbott, taking formula from migrant babies would be illegal — and vicious

Olivia Godden feeds baby formula to her infant son, Jaiden, at their home in San Antonio on May 13. (Eric Gay/AP)
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In the debate over how to address the widespread shortage of infant formula in the United States, some Republicans have advanced a novel — and ugly — idea: Take food from migrant babies in federal detention and give it to American children.

Such a “solution” is not only legally forbidden, it’s morally reprehensible.

The idea of pitting one group of babies against another would be nasty in any circumstance. But the implied proposal to starve some children to punish their parents should leave all decent people aghast.

This new strand of vicious demagoguery may have originated with Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.). She said on Wednesday that Border Patrol agents in Texas were sending her pictures of pallets of baby formula “for all of the illegals that are crossing into the United States.” Rep. Troy E. Nehls (R-Tex.) seized on these reports to complain that “baby formula should go to Americans before illegals. This should not have to be said.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who never misses an opportunity to denigrate undocumented immigrants for his own political gain, followed by releasing a joint statement with a union that represents Border Patrol agents and staff.

“While mothers and fathers stare at empty grocery store shelves in a panic, the Biden Administration is happy to provide baby formula to illegal immigrants coming across our southern border,” Abbott and Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, wrote. “Our children deserve a president who puts their needs and survival first — not one who gives critical supplies to illegal immigrants before the very people he took an oath to serve.”

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It was bad enough when Abbott wanted to deny immigrant children schooling. This new statement is an implied endorsement of politically motivated starvation.

House Republican Conference chair Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), who had earlier played a constructive role in calling attention to the formula shortage, echoed Abbott on Friday — and then called people concerned about migrant children “pedo grifters.”

And in a sign that this deranged indifference to some babies is here to stay, an analysis by Media Matters senior fellow Matt Gertz (full disclosure: my husband) found that, within a 12-hour period, at least six different Fox News hosts doubled down on the idea that, as Sean Hannity put it: “These are not people that respected our borders, our laws, and our sovereignty. Why wouldn’t all of the pallets go to American families first?”

There’s a legal answer to that question: Under the 1997 Flores consent decree, which governs the treatment of migrant children in federal custody, the U.S. government is required to feed the children in its care. That settlement was written into federal law in 2008, and the Customs and Border Protection document explaining how to implement it specifically includes a requirement to provide detained children with food “appropriate for at-risk detainees’ age and capabilities (such as formula and baby food).”

There is also a moral answer that is even more important: Our duty to babies is distinct from our judgments of their parents and stems from a higher place than petty hatreds and domestic politics.

The Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, adopted by the League of Nations in 1924, affirmed that “mankind owes to the Child the best that it has to give.” According to this vision, children must be fed and nursed, and “the first to receive relief in times of distress.” These obligations override “all considerations of race, nationality or creed.”

Childhood, as the drafters of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child put it, is a state of being “entitled to special care and assistance,” and not just because children and infants are more vulnerable than adults. Doing our best to foster the physical, emotional and intellectual well-being of all children is an investment in our common future and stability.

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Cammack had at least enough decency to acknowledge that “It is not the children’s fault at all” that they are in federal detention. Yet she still described the decision to feed them as “another example of the ‘America Last’ agenda.”

It’s anathema to punish innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit. Babies aren’t capable of making the decision to cross international borders. And even if their parents committed a crime in coming here, that offense doesn’t eliminate the United States’ responsibility to those babies. Neglecting and starving children who have been put at risk doesn’t even the score or teach anyone a lesson: It simply compounds a wrong.

The Border Patrol agents who contacted Cammack and whom Judd represents are right to be frustrated if their families can’t find formula. But withholding food from immigrant babies wouldn’t fix the supply-chain and regulatory issues causing the scarcity.

Instead, such a decision would do moral injury to the agents themselves. I don’t believe that even the most exhausted, anxious parent or grandparent wants to starve another baby.

Yet that is what officials such as Abbott are suggesting they do. As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote, the cruelty is the point of a certain brand of contemporary conservative politics. Even by that standard, the attack against migrant babies is a new moral abyss.