In many ways, America was created in the dissonance between freedom and oppression. The words all men are created equal in the Declaration of Independence were written by a slave owner. When American soldiers were liberating Jews from Nazi concentration camps in Europe, Japanese Americans were rounded up and detained in internment camps. There are examples throughout our nation’s history.
And last week, as this nation of immigrants celebrated our independence, thousands of migrant children were subjected to harsh conditions in detention facilities along the southern border.
According to a report released last week by the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, in June, almost 2,700 children were held in overcrowded facilities with limited or no access to basic hygiene supplies, showers, hot meals, or clean clothes. About a third of these children were detained for more than 72 hours -- longer than what is permitted under law. Fifty children were below the age of 7. Also detained were about 5,300 adult immigrants.
The DHS inspector general concluded that these conditions represent an “immediate risk to the health and safety” of the people detained.
The crime that deserved these inhumane conditions of detention: trying to enter the United States.
Largely, the Trump administration does not dispute these conditions. In fact, a lawyer for DHS went to court to defend them. She attempted to argue in front of a judge that soap, toothpaste, and sleep should not be necessary conditions to fulfill the requirement that immigrants be held in “safe and sanitary detention condition.”
It would be tempting to lay these conditions at the feet of the Trump administration alone, but these conditions date back to the 1980s. The DHS lawyer was in court because the government was appealing a part of a lawsuit that originated against the detention conditions of immigrants during the Obama presidency.
But the Trump administration did exacerbate the crisis. The origin of the current situation at the border is child separation practices from last summer, part of a larger policy of zero tolerance. The goal of that effort was to deter immigrants from making the long journey to the U.S. To be an effective deterrent, the treatment of immigrants crossing the border needs to be worse than the conditions that they fled in the first place. That requires a deliberate effort to make America not a shining city on a hill but a place scarier for children than some of the most infamous pockets of violence and poverty in the world.
The American experiment is unique because throughout history, tensions between freedom and oppression ultimately have been resolved in favor of freedom -- even if sometimes it has taken much longer than it should have. To be American at this moment means recognizing that injustices like the detention of children in inhumane conditions are a part of our nation’s DNA -- but so is opposing them. A first step would be to call your representative and demand that these children be moved to more adequate facilities and that Congress start working on a plan to prevent this type of crisis from ever happening again.