One of the weirder phenomena of the Trump presidency — which is really saying something — is that for a White House that draws so much of its political support from evangelical Christians, the administration usually ends up playing the role of Pontius Pilate or other Roman bad guys when it comes time to make a religious allegory out of America’s modern-day plight.
Never more so than this Christmas Eve, when the Trumpian Empire put a horrifying new spin on the phrase “no room at the inn,” as Border Patrol agents took as many as 400 Central American migrants seeking political asylum in the United States — literally, huddled masses — and dumped them outside the Greyhound bus terminal in El Paso, Texas. This was done without warning any of the refugee agencies that normally help migrants make their transition; indeed, done so hastily that some of those thrown out in the 40-degree South Texas Christmas blast of Arctic air had no idea what city they were in.
Local officials and refugee-aid groups, who were completely blindsided by the drop-offs, scrambled to get families off the streets — frantically booking motel rooms or finding shelter at a nearby Catholic school. Four buses were summoned for families to climb aboard and at least stay warm in the dead of night.
“We’re trying to ensure that ICE gives the community notice next time when they know that there’s not going to be space in existing migrant shelters, to give the community 24 hours' heads up so that we can find hotel rooms, beds, alternative shelters, food, volunteers — everything that these people will need to make sure that they are OK,” said Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso congressman who’s ending his term as he eyes another run for higher office in 2020.
A local refugee activist named Dylan Corbett from a group called the Hope Border Institute told NPR that one of the Border Patrol officers dropping off this Christmas diaspora told him: 'I have a heavy heart, I’m a human being, but I’m following orders" — thus taking a sad Oh-little-town-of-Bethlehem metaphor to a darker, more recent place in world history.
Unfortunately , the midnight refugee dump wasn’t the worst news to come out of the southern border over Christmas break. That was the heartbreaking story that Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, an 8-year-old refugee from Guatemala, died after experiencing a high fever and vomiting after a week in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol, also near El Paso. Felipe was the second grade-school-age child refugee to die in American custody after border apprehension this month, following the sudden death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, aged 7, also from Guatemala. She died on Dec. 8, two days after falling ill.
Jakelin’s death provoked both great sadness and tremendous anger — natural reactions to the senseless death of a young child. Although I’ve written a lot in 2018 about the humanitarian crisis at the border, I’ve held off addressing these child deaths because while people seem eager for someone to blame — whether that’s the Border Patrol, Donald Trump, or the parents who brought their children on such a dangerous trek in the first place — we just don’t know all the facts. One positive aspect of the Democratic House takeover is that we can expect the thorough investigation that these deaths deserve, after January.
But we don’t need to know all the specifics of why two small children died to know this: When that happens — twice in one month — something has gone terribly wrong. And that’s not all. Things are not right when hundreds of human beings are dumped into the frigid air of Christmas Eve in the desert with no food or heat and nowhere to go. When families are separated on purpose, and when potential sponsors who step forward to care for unaccompanied youths aren’t greeted as heroes but are instead locked up for eventual deportation, things have gone off the rails. When the United States of America runs what it euphemistically calls a “tent city” but is really a child concentration camp in Tornillo, Texas, with no plan for what to do about the thousands of kids there going into 2019, that is truly unconscionable.
The ongoing crisis on the southern border can look intractable on its worst days, which is ridiculous. There are many basic policy maneuvers that can start to make things better and that are also the kinds of things that — even in a moment of over-the-top political divisiveness — liberals and conservatives, at least those in Congress, might be able to agree upon. That we’re in a moment when more and more people are questioning the ability of the president to lead might actually bring the two parties closer together.
Whatever happens next has to start with something that was discussed in this space back in June, which is investing more dollars and more positive mental energy into ways that the U.S. can become a better neighbor to Central America — to work with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador on strategies to reduce crime, drugs and political instability so people will want to raise their families in their native homelands.
As for the more recent crisis of children dying in the care of U.S. Border Patrol, the poor conditions in which migrants are held at the southern border is not a new problem. Advocates warned about shoddy care during the administration of Barack Obama,, when unauthorized immigration surged. In 2015 and earlier, immigration lawyers and advocate complained about detainees held in frigid “iceboxes,” in wet clothing or spending hours on hard benches or other uncomfortable postures. So, no, these problems didn’t start with Trump — although no one could expect the most xenophobic man to ever gain control of the White House to make things better. At least not without outside pressure.
The No. 1 priority for Americans patrolling the border shouldn’t be locking folks up as much as keeping them alive. That’s Humanity 101, and yet we’ve been flunking this entry-level course for years. For a long time, immigration activists have left water bottles or supported shelters in the American desert north of key border crossings for this simple human purpose. Border Patrol agents have destroyed these water bottles and in January arrested one of the activists who supported these operations.
The people who are desperate to raise their children in a place not saturated with murder, rape, and drugs are refugees, and there’s only one crisis at the border: The humanitarian crisis. At long as America treats refugees — people showing up at the border legally, and in most cases rightfully — seeking the human right of safe asylum in our country as common criminals, children will die and decent people will be tortured by cold, hard, unbearable conditions.
There is some hope that in the far-too-belated wake of these two deaths that the Border Patrol can allow greater access to outside physicians — who’ve been pushing for better medical care since 2014 and the Obama administration — and take other overdue steps to provide humane holding facilities, for a change. The time is now and the leverage exists — the Jan. 2 arrival of a Democratic House that will mostly likely still be negotiating with Trump to end the partial government shutdown.
So far, this process has bogged down in political posturing, with the president giving into pressure from Fox News and talk radio hosts for the most xenophobic stance possible. Trump needs a way out, and the only solution may be to improve medical care, modernize or build humane holding facilities for the Border Patrol, coordinate better with shelter-providing refugee groups, shut down the American gulag at Tornillo and encourage sponsors for unaccompanied minors instead of arresting them, and to include the price tag for a more humane United States in the money to be spent on border security.
That’s because nothing makes the border more secure than keeping children alive and not dumping human beings at a bus station. If Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on this basic point — over Christmas and the promise of a new year, no less — then what the hell are we even doing?