As a political leader whose defining moment has been the mass shooting of 20 kindergartners and first graders in his home state in 2012, and his aggressive push for stricter gun laws ever since, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy has never been one to mince words about either the welfare of children or human rights hypocrisy, either at home or abroad.
A strong supporter of his fellow Democrat, President Joe Biden, Murphy was candid this weekend in admitting that he was troubled by the scenes he witnessed on a bipartisan congressional tour of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center in the Texas border city of El Paso, where officials are struggling to deal humanely with a record surge of teen and adolescent Central American refugees who, without parents, made the dangerous trek north to the United States.
Murphy said in an NPR interview that while “these are not kids in cages” — pushing back on the (sometimes justified) go-to border critique of the American left — the scene inside the center was nonetheless disturbing and not anything you would “want your child in for more than 10 minutes. ... You’re sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor. They are sort of bunched, you know, about six inches to a foot from each other. We’ve got to ultimately do better.”
Along with one of the Republicans on his El Paso tour — Sen. Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia — Murphy also said the Biden administration should work harder to give the media more access to the overcrowded facilities, where young refugees are increasingly detained longer than the 72-hour legal limit, so that the American public can better see and understand the current crisis instead of relying on the secondhand verbal accounts of senators or other visitors.
“I pleaded with him” — Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s homeland security secretary, who led the tour — “to have as much transparency with us ... but with the press as well,” Capito told the Washington Post. Murphy — while raising legitimate concerns about the privacy of detained minors — seemed to agree, explaining that “we want to make sure that the press has access to hold the administration accountable.”
The surge of desperate young people from countries such as Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador fleeing gang or drug-related violence, rape and sexual abuse, and economic crises exacerbated by drought or floods made worse by climate change, has increased in the two months since Biden became 46th president with a promise to undo the human rights abuses of the Donald Trump years and make America more welcoming to the region’s refugees. Right now, the number of unaccompanied migrant youths — about 10,000 in the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services, and another 5,000 with Customs and Border Protection — is double the previous record.
The border situation is neither the first crisis facing the new administration nor close to the biggest — not with a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans and the related economic crisis leaving 10 million out of work — but it is the nation’s most visible problem that can be so easily demagogued by Republicans looking to score cheap political points against a popular president, or get lapped up by Beltway journalists eager to go back to the brunch of lazy punditry. Indeed, the Sunday morning talk shows — ABC even flew its panelists to an outdoor location at the border — seemed to openly salivate at a return to the days of swinging at Democrats with a club furnished by the RNC.
With America’s former demagogue-in-chief retired to a golf pasture and banned from Twitter, House GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has gamely stepped up to the plate — claiming that “this crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration” and tweeting nonsensically about “open borders” when the reality is instead that thousands are detained. But attacks like McCarthy’s are now driving off-kilter coverage like Sunday’s breathless, four-byline lead story in the Washington Post that centers the notion that Biden’s policies are to blame — with amnesia about the Post’s own reporting last fall while Trump was president that awful conditions in Central America were already driving an uptick in refugees, let alone the role that the inhumane policies of POTUS 45 have played in making things worse. What’s more, overall border crossings right now are similar to 2019 — when Trump was in the White House.
Critics of the Washington Post article like the attorney Luppe B. Luppen (@nycsouthpaw) noted that part of the “blame” for the crisis attributed to Biden is ending the Trump administration’s program called “Remain in Mexico” which, in blocking asylum seekers, created — and this is how the Post described it in its own article — “families crowded into squalid camps” on this other side of the border. Let that sink in: The Post article amplifies the idea that a policy that created a human rights nightmare of unsanitary refugee camps was a policy success that a Democratic president foolishly overturned.
And never mind that a federal judge ruled in November, or two months before Biden took office, that America had to stop Trump’s policy of turning away unaccompanied minors — one of the many nuances lost in our newest pseudo-debate.
That said, I do think Biden is making some mistakes here — not in his actual policies but rather in the predictably timid and counterproductive way he’s portraying them to the American people. The media does need greater access to what’s really happening at the border, because it’s silly to push for improved human rights while ignoring transparency or denying robust press freedom. And it’s also self-defeating for Biden’s chief spokesperson, Jen Psaki, to struggle mightily to keep from calling the border situation “a crisis.” Look, when thousands of teenagers are risking their lives to ride atop dangerous trains or trek through arid desert to flee the places they were born, that is, by any definition, a crisis. But we need to stop the political BS and talk honestly about what the crisis is and how to fix it.
It’s true — and understandable — that given the desire of so many Central Americans to flee to a better life, the number of asylum seekers would increase when a president who embraces the United States’ uneven tradition of welcoming the world’s refugees replaces a president whose cruelty-is-the-point immigration policies meant ripping toddlers away from their mothers, and other policies meant to lower the tally of unauthorized border crossings by means of human suffering. Team Biden is working to roll back maybe the most counterproductive Trump policy — by again allowing Central Americans to apply for asylum in their native country instead of forcing a dangerous trek north — but that’s going to take a while to take root.
We should be honest in acknowledging that there’s a humanitarian crisis at America’s southern border that starts with a humanitarian crisis in Central America — and the United States has an obligation to help solve these problems, in part because decades of imperialistic and often misguided policies in the region helped cause them. That’s going to take time and some patience — something that’s painfully hard to find amid the chung of “Fox News Alerts” — but America is going to need to increase its foreign aid in those countries in a way that helps people, and not dictators. Likewise, a country that just sent most of its citizens a $1,400 check probably has the cash to construct comfortable buildings and hire enough staff to treat the current crush of asylum seekers both more quickly and more humanely.
Joe Biden has grown tremendously during his 50 years in American politics, coming around to progressive ideas that will benefit the middle class, but as a survivor of the battered-Democrat syndrome after Ronald Reagan he still has a tendency to fear the difficult “optics” of doing the right-but-difficult thing. But when it comes to the hot button issue of immigration, Fox News, the both-sides Beltway journalists and the xenophobes of the GOP caucus are going to do their schtick for The 46% no matter what. It’s best for Biden to remind the other 54% what it means for America to lead again on human rights.
At the end of the day, what’s important isn’t the number of border crossings, but the individual humanity of the refugees exercising their legal right to seek asylum in the United States. The politicians and the pundits trying to push America back to the “good old days” of 2018, of ripping families apart or condemning them to inhumane refugee camps in Mexico, are shameless. The Biden administration should call this a crisis, but also be clear-eyed about how this happened and transparent about how they’re trying to fix it. To paraphrase the late Hubert Humphrey’s greatest speech, it’s way past time for America to get out of the shadows of border cruelty and and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.
» READ MORE: SIGN UP: The Will Bunch Newsletter