Whether it’s the border wall, President Trump’s recent remarks, or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez latest tweet calling immigration detention centers “concentration camps,” it’s easy to focus on the wrong arguments about immigration. It all detracts from a more immediate problem: how the U.S. government is treating the influx of migrants on the southern border. Immigration detention centers need to act fast to bring their standards up to par for the hundreds of children forced into their care.
Arguing over definitions and tweets is silly when there is an actual crisis that demands attention—and funding—in our nation: human harms of migrant intake occurring on the border. The same day AOC posted her viral tweet on concentration camps, the Trump administration was in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing in favor of overturning a 2017 ruling that found the federal government violated legal standards for detaining migrant children.
To understand the court’s decision to rule against the federal government, one should know how the standards came to fruition. In 1985, Immigration and Naturalization Service (now dismantled) detained 15-year-old Jenny Flores for illegally crossing the Mexico-United States border. They held the unaccompanied El Salvadorian girl among adults of both sexes, in subpar standards. INS officials also strip-searched the girl on a regular basis. Her case led to a lawsuit against the U.S. attorney general, ending in a settlement commonly referred to as the “Flores agreement.”
The Flores agreement dictates that immigration enforcement must provide “safe and sanitary” living conditions for minors, and the detention facilities must uphold state standards for housing and care of dependent children. The settlement reads facilities must “provide access to toilets and sinks, drinking water and food as appropriate, medical assistance if the minor is in need of emergency services, adequate temperature control and ventilation, adequate supervision to protect minors from others, and contact with family members who were arrested with the minor.”
These perfectly reasonable standards are apparently too high for the federal government to follow, as overcrowded detention facilities haven’t been providing soap, toothbrushes, or adequate sleeping spaces for all detained minors. One physician who visited the nation’s largest Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention center in McAllen, Texas, compared living conditions to torture facilities. After examining 39 minors with signs of trauma, she reported the center had “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.”
This is irresponsible and unacceptable. And the U.S. District Court is right to have ruled that the federal government is violating the agreement on ensuring “safe and sanitary” living conditions for migrants. But in a painful viral video, a Trump administration attorney argues to the court of appeals that providing these materials and conditions are unnecessary to comply with the “safe and sanitary” standard. The judges in the video were visibly aghast at this argument, as am I. And you should be too.
Last week, the Senate approved $4.6 billion in emergency funding for the humanitarian crisis at the border, while the Democrat-led Senate approved a different bill allocating $4.5 billion. Now the two chambers have to come together and decide where and how to spend the money. Hopefully the number they agree upon will be enough to change the current state of failure within the CBP detention centers. But even additional resources won’t solve long-term problems with how CBP treats children under their care. And it won’t stop the Trump administration from fighting in court.
No one deserves to live in such awful environments that firsthand reports have revealed about the CBP detention centers—especially children. In the immediate, the U.S. government has a moral duty to protect the safety and wellbeing of children who cannot speak for themselves.
Detainment should never equate to neglect. It’s one thing to demand education programs or entertainment to be provided, but it’s completely different to ask for clean water and soap.
Many Americans are uncomfortable with spending billions of taxpayer dollars on foreign individuals who are abusing our laws and charity. But the federal government is the one detaining individuals and their children for breaking the law, which means they are also responsible for providing adequate food, water, shelter, and general wellbeing.
Yes, CBP will likely get their emergency funding soon, but next steps are needed. It’s not feasible to throw money at the problem and expect it to go away—the federal government should prioritize better immigration laws. In the midst of a divided Congress, it’s not clear exactly what that solution looks like yet. But in the meantime, they should do all they can to limit human suffering while lawmakers negotiate.
In addition to improving living and basic health care conditions, Congress needs to set better guidelines and principles for CBP employees to follow when handling illegally present children. Some employees may require additional training, for example. No matter what emergency funding bill Congress moves forward, this accountability measure should absolutely be a part of it.
The media latches on to creating a left versus right dichotomy on immigration, but whether you support increased immigration or not, politics aside, treating detained individuals—especially children—like human beings, is a must. Things were just as bad under the Obama administration, but now, largely thanks to President Trump, people are paying attention.
No well-funded government should ever put a child to sleep on concrete floors, with bright lights on 24 hours a day, with nothing but solar blankets to provide some level of warmth. The government treats adults convicted of violent felonies better than this.
Social media has its purposes, but it’s far too easy to get caught up in offensive words and petty arguments. On immigration, it’s pertinent that we don’t fall into this trap. Migrant children and their families are facing a real crisis, and people should be concerned.
Because the flow of migrants is unlikely to stop anytime soon, the federal government should be prepared to handle the continual increase of human intake while they negotiate over broader policies to ultimately reduce illegal immigration and perhaps increase legal immigration opportunities. We must protect our nation’s integrity by treating those detained at the border with decency.