On Wednesday, President Trump tweeted: “Many of these illegal aliens are living far better now than where they came from and in far safer conditions.” He was responding to outrage in the wake of a report from the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, released a day earlier. The report cites “serious overcrowding and prolonged detention” at a handful of migrant centers along the southwestern border. It describes squalid conditions, detainees, including many children, without proper hygiene, nutrition or sleeping arrangements.
Perhaps, in some instances, the circumstances are better, say, for those migrants fleeing for their lives. Yet that misses the point of the fury. What many Americans find disturbing is the violation of our shared values, the report revealing a lack of compassion and simple decency, not to mention respect for the rule of law.
In almost all cases, these migrants are desperate to improve their lives. Many are seeking asylum, and their stories deserve to be heard. That doesn’t mean all applications will be granted. Rather, the expectation and legal requirement are that they will be treated humanely as they wait.
This is what our history teaches, the virtue and reward in embracing newcomers.
The Trump White House has been transparent about its intention. It wants to discourage migrants from coming. Thus, it has taken such steps as raising fees on asylum applications and forcing more than 13,000 migrants to wait in Mexico for the outcome of their cases. The darkest elements have been the “zero tolerance” policy resulting in children separated from their families (without adequate tracking to ensure eventual reunification) — and now this.
The Homeland Security inspector general report finds that “at one facility, some single adults were held in standing-room-only conditions for a week, and at another, some single adults were held more than a month in overcrowded cells.” Children and adults received only wet wipes to clean themselves. They were fed bologna sandwiches. The report notes that as inspectors visited facilities, migrants banged on cells and pleaded for help.
The report concludes that both border agents and detainees are at increasing risk. One facility manager called the conditions a “ticking time-bomb.”
What about deterrence? Border apprehensions actually have increased sharply since last fall, analysts suggesting that migrants are coming in greater numbers to beat a future presidential bid to shut the border door. Whatever the reason for the surge, the administration has responded poorly. And, yes, Congress has been slow to act.
The recently enacted $4.6 billion for improvements and humanitarian assistance at the border will help. So will the recent agreement with Mexico concerning more cooperative action. Yet it is worth emphasizing the inspector general report builds on an earlier assessment, released in May, which reached similar conclusions and made recommendations that have yet to be implemented.
It disappoints, too, to learn from reporting by ProPublica that current and former border patrol agents have contributed to a Facebook page jokes about migrant deaths and threats to members of Congress. As it is, the New York Times points out that since September, at least six migrant children have died in federal custody or shortly after they were released.
All of this should shock the conscience. Federal authorities have a process for handling migrants. For instance, children who cannot be deported are supposed to be moved to proper facilities with 72 hours. The White House argues that the system has been overwhelmed. The trouble is in responding to the crush, the administration has abandoned the spirit of the law and past practice. It has opted for cruelty, or actions at odds with what long has won admiration for this country.