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General News    H3'ed 7/25/19

Tomgram: Karen Greenberg, What the Child Detentions at the Border Really Tell Us

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Let me get this straight: Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire (or purported billionaire) and former pal of Donald Trump ("I've known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy"), was convicted in Florida in 2008 of soliciting prostitution -- of molesting girls, basically -- and sent to prison for a year and a half (including cushy "work releases" six days a week). He then registered as a "sex offender" and went off to... well, lead the high life in New York City, where it seems to have happened all over again. Recently, he was charged by federal prosecutors with sex trafficking and abusing "dozens of young women" and, in the spirit of the moment, the story took over the media in a distinctly Trumpian fashion for a couple of weeks. The result: the administration's labor secretary, Alex Acosta, also the attorney who had overseen Epstein's Florida prosecution and given him a lenient plea deal, felt forced to resign, the president ran for his life ("I haven't spoken to [Epstein] in 15 years. I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you"), and significant figures denounced both Acosta and Epstein. All of which seemed more than appropriate given the nature of the acts committed.

Now, to put this in the context of the moment: at the U.S.-Mexican border literally thousands of girls, boys, children, even babies have been treated in a fashion so cruel and degrading as to be barely believable (including possible sexual assault). This, too, has made headlines around the country and some of the reports on the degradation of those helpless children have been graphic indeed. All of this has happened as part of President Trump's much-promoted offensive against an "invasion" of immigrants. And much of it, as TomDispatch regular and director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law Karen Greenberg suggests today, looks like systematic and intentional cruelty. If such things happened in private life, the perpetrators would be arrested and brought to court. So what were the responses to these revelations? The president dismissed the whole thing ("we're doing a fantastic job under the circumstances"), while the vice president referred to the treatment of children at the border as "compassionate care." The head of the Department of Homeland Security did not resign or apologize and, although the acting head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection did resign without explanation in the midst of these revelations, no apologies have been forthcoming from this administration, nor do prosecutors seem to be preparing cases against anyone associated with it for such ongoing acts of horror.

The two situations, by the way, are never compared. In that context, consider what Greenberg suggests all of this means: that the Trump administration is quite consciously and programmatically turning its back on the very idea of human rights (at least for anyone but white people). Tom

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No Fairy Tale
The Trump Administration's Declaration of Inhuman Rights
By Karen J. Greenberg

Lately, I've been thinking about the Grimm's fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. Terrified by cruel conditions at home, the brother and sister flee, winding their way, hungry and scared, through unknown woods. There, they encounter an old woman who lures them in with promises of safety. Instead, she locks one of them in a cage and turns the other into a servant, as she prepares to devour them both.

Written in nineteenth-century Germany, it should resonate eerily in today's America. In place of Hansel and Gretel, we would, of course, have to focus on girls and boys by the hundreds fleeing cruelty and hunger in Central America, believing that they will find a better life in the United States, only to be thrown into cages by forces far more powerful and agents much crueler than that wicked old woman. In the story, there are no politics; there is only good and bad, right and wrong.

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Rather than, as in that fairy tale, register the suffering involved in the captivity and punishment of those children at the U.S.-Mexican border, the administration has chosen a full-bore defense of its policies and so has taken a giant step in a larger mission: redefining (or more precisely trying to abolish) the very idea of human rights as a part of the country's identity.

This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left no doubt: the reality of those children locked in cages, deprived of the most basic needs, and brazenly abused by the administration he works for has been an essential part of the Trump team's determination to abandon human rights more generally. That willingness to leave children unprotected is part of a far larger message, not merely an unfortunate byproduct of ill-thought out and clumsy actions by an overwhelmed border police force.

Children in Detention Camps

The story of the children at the border is indeed gruesome. The United States has long had migrants pushing at its southern border, often in larger numbers than at present. In fact, since the 1980s, the numbers crossing that border exceeded one million in 19 different years. While the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to estimate that current immigration rates are on track to exceed one million by September, many other experts don't think it will even happen this year.

What's genuinely new with the current border crossings is the number of children among the migrants. According to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan's sobering recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the presence of such children has risen 72% in recent years. Some even come "unaccompanied." Others belong to migrant families. And while last month the government officially stopped its cruel policy of separating families, leaving many of those children (even toddlers and babies) alone in custody, Vox reports that "at any given time, for the past several weeks, more than 2,000 children have been held in the custody of U.S. Border Patrol without their parents."

The conditions in the camps, strewn along the U.S. borderlands from Arizona to Texas, are shameful and fall most harshly on those very children. A recent Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report, issued in redacted form just days before the July 4th holiday celebrating the birth of this country as a beacon of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," described the staggering squalor and danger at such confinement facilities. There, children were often deprived of changes of clothes, beds, hot meals, toothbrushes, soap, showers, even adequate medical attention. Other eyewitness accounts have provided graphic details on the nature and scale of the deprivation, showing us children in soiled diapers, living with the stench of urine, sleeping on concrete floors, many weeping. On the somewhat more civilized floor of the Senate, members were told of children sleeping outside, exposed to the elements, and of the spoiled food at the camps.

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Add to this the emotional toll that family separations have wrought on thousands of young people, as a new report issued by the House of Representatives Oversight Committee reveals and as others have documented. An El Paso immigration lawyer visiting one facility, for instance, described seeing a young boy who had scratched his own face until it bled. There are first-hand accounts by visitors to the camps of children trying to choke themselves with the lanyards from their own identification cards and others who dreamed about escaping by jumping out of windows high above the ground.

No wonder at least seven children have died while in such circumstances and many more are suffering from lice, scabies, chickenpox and other afflictions. Yet when doctors from the American Association of Pediatricians traveled to the camps to offer their help, their services were refused. Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, herself a pediatrician, has labeled the situation of the migrants "appalling" and noted that "several U.N. human rights bodies have found that the detention of migrant children may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that is prohibited by international law." Others have been less circumspect, explicitly comparing the treatment of the children to torture.

It's hard not to assume that, however overwhelmed CBP may be, at least some of this treatment is intentional. Why else turn away doctors offering help or refuse supplies of donated aid sent by worried citizens? Why arrest a humanitarian aid volunteer who gave food and water to two ill and desperate undocumented Central American migrants and tried to get them medical help? The administration acknowledges that the overall situation is dire, but its officials on the spot have basically thrown up their hands, complaining that they have been "overwhelmed" by the situation they created, are "not trained to separate children," and are powerless to address the problem of scarce resources.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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