This is how America ends as any kind of force for good. With a yellow bracelet.
I've been thinking about a 36-year-old Guatemalan woman named Alma Jacinto and her two boys, ages 8 and 11, as I try to comprehend the rapidly accelerating human-rights outrage taking place along America's southern border. To be clear, the story of how the United States mistreats migrant families, so desperate for a better life, can be a confusing tale — especially as emotions flare on social media. It's a discussion that can get bogged down in the evil banality of bureaucrats and in statistics — especially the 1,475 children that government agents took, and then lost track of — that generate shock yet somehow don't do justice to the everyday inhumanity.
That's why I'm grateful for the on-the-ground journalism of Curt Prendergast and Perla Trevizo of the Arizona Daily Star (local reporting matters, people) that put a human face on a horrible Trump administration "zero tolerance" policy by showing us the terror and the tears of Jacinto as the detained border crosser left the Tucson courtroom where a magistrate couldn't answer her questions about where her two boys were going or when she would see them again.
On Jacinto's wrist was the yellow bracelet that, the newspaper reported, federal authorities have begun using to mark mothers and fathers who've been forcibly separated from their kids under recently amped-up prosecution directives of a 2005 program named Operation Streamline — bland Orwellian doublespeak to mask a human-rights outrage. It was just a decade ago that a yellow bracelet meant support for humanitarian causes like fighting cancer. Now, it's a symbol of a cancer on the American spirit, led by a president and his top aides who dehumanize migrants and now terrorize their families, fueled by cynical demagogic politics and a dollop of old-time prejudice.
The human toll of state-sanctioned hatred hits people like Estaban Pastor, another Guatemalan who came here with his 18-month-old son after he'd mortgaged his family's tiny farm to pay for the child's hospital bill and needed the income to pay back the loan. As recounted by Lomi Kriel of the Houston Chronicle, father and child were arrested in July 2017 trying to cross the border in Texas. U.S. Border Patrol agents deported Pastor last October but wouldn't say where his toddler was other than "somewhere in Texas."
"I cried. I begged," Pastor told the newspaper. "No one could tell me anything." The Chronicle says a judge eventually freed the child after a Kafkaesque three-month crusade by Pastor to find his son, now 2, and secure his release. What's happening in 2018 is that stories like Pastor's are becoming much more common — thanks to the "zero tolerance" announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that's causing a dramatic rise in both arrests and family separations.
How did we get to this horrible place?
It's a complicated story, and in some ways it's more of an "America story" than a "Trump story," with tangled roots in the abuses of a so-called "war on terror" — although the arrival of the Trump presidency has managed to make things much worse.
As Trump is so often wont to do.
But Trump wasn't president (nor could such a thing be imagined) in 2003 when a new federal immigration apparatus — including the creation of a new police force, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE — was created under the Department of Homeland Security, which in turn was created to respond to the 2001 terrorist attack on the United States. Few listened to experts who warned that treating the very human problem of migration as a law-enforcement issue closely related to fighting terrorism would have serious unintended consequences.
Under two presidents — a Republican, George W. Bush, and a Democrat, Barack Obama — arrests of immigrants and deportations skyrocketed. Meanwhile, just now are we learning the extent to which ICE, the Border Patrol and other federal agencies were horrible custodians of the people they arrested and detained — particularly children. Just last week, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a major report based on thousands of pages of Border Patrol records it had obtained from 2009-2014 — years when Obama was in the White House.
What the ACLU uncovered was "a pattern of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by Customs and Border Protection officials against child immigrants that existed long before President Trump emboldened the agency by unleashing its officers to enforce his draconian immigration policies." That included horror stories like a 15-year-old teen mother — brought undocumented to the United States from Mexico at a young age — who was nabbed by Border Patrol at a rest stop, roughed up and told that if she didn't sign papers to go back to her native country, thus putting her child into foster care, "Right now, we close the door, we rape you and f— you."
Overall, Obama had a mixed record on immigration; unable to work with GOP obstructionists on a reform plan, he spiked deportations in his first term but used his executive order pen to offer humane alternatives like the DACA program protecting young "Dreamers" midway through his time in the White House. But in hindsight, Obama's failure to rein in the out-of-control abuses of this authoritarian police apparatus loom larger every day.
Because things could get a lot worse.
Beginning in 2011, with soaring murder rates and narcotics crime spreading across Central America, there was a surge in unaccompanied minors — mostly teens — trying to cross the border. Many of these children were apprehended by Border Patrol, and the U.S. obviously didn't have a good plan for what to do next. Some of the kids were placed with family members, but others ended in foster care or more ambiguous situations. It was a system with a high risk for abuse — and abuses occurred.
The agency tasked with placing thousands of kids — the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement — clearly wasn't up to the task of vetting potential sponsors. An AP investigation found in 2016 that "more than two dozen unaccompanied children had been sent to homes where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay."
Under pressure, the HHS agency stepped up its efforts to keep track of what is happening to these migrant kids, and so last month top officials in the department made a stunning admission to a federal hearing: When officials tried to follow up from October through December of 2017 on the whereabouts of roughly 7.500 kids the federal government had placed with sponsors, it was unable to find out what happened to 1,475 of them, or roughly one in five.
The report of the 1,475 kids that HHS doesn't know what happened to has stirred up considerable controversy on social media. Critics say it's appalling that — given the potential for trafficking and other abuse — that the government doesn't keep better tabs. Some immigration lawyers say that most of the supposedly lost children are doing fine with family members and that liberals are inadvertently advocating for a Big Brother-type response that would do more harm than good.
Either way, the U.S. government isn't the preferred guardian for migrant kids. In a normal world, the administration of our new-in-2017 President Trump would be dedicated to fixing the problems. To the contrary, Team Trump rolled out new punitive polices at the border that would have the consequence of tossing hundreds and eventually thousands more children into this growing American gulag. The new policy reflects both the way that xenophobia was central to Trump's election in 2016 and also the fact that demeaning migrants and keeping refugees from reaching American soil seems to be the only thing that personally excites and engages the new president.
In March, responding to Trump's growing rage over a jump in border crossing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the "zero tolerance" policy that would take parents who might have been merely returned across the border under past policies and now detain them and prosecute them, thus requiring the government to put the kids in shelters.
"If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple," said Sessions. "If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
Parents doing what any native-born American mom or dad would do in a similar situation — trying to get their kids away from places where they might starve or get shot — are branded by the Trump administration as "smugglers." And the attitude of top administration officials on what happens to these children is shockingly callous. Trump's chief of staff John Kelly told NPR the kids "will be put in foster care or whatever."
Whatever. Hover over that word and let it sink in.
But this fish stinks from the head. The growing uproar about how America mistreats these migrant kids comes at the same time that Trump speaks of migrants — possibly members of a gang called MS-13, although the president left it intentionally vague — as "animals." This weekend, we learned that the president of the United States — who has in the past raged privately about arrivals from "shithole countries" in Africa — also brags on how he demonizes Hispanic immigrants for political gain.
"Trump reminded them the crowds loved his rhetoric on immigrants along the campaign trail," reported the Washington Post of a recent Oval Office meeting. "Acting as if he were at a rally, he recited a few made-up Hispanic names and described potential crimes they could have committed, such as rape or murder. Then, he said, the crowds would roar when the criminals were thrown out of the country – as they did when he highlighted crimes by illegal immigrants at his rallies, according to a person present for the exchange and another briefed on it later. [Aides Stephen] Miller and [Jared] Kushner laughed." [Emphasis added.]
This is a dangerous demagogue willfully using hatred and prejudice to consolidate his political power — the scenario we probably should have seen coming, but didn't, in the daze immediately after 9/11 when we created our homeland-security state. It never should have gotten this far. People — myself included — should have paid attention and spoken out as our repressive immigration policies worsened over the last decade, because now there's no easy fix under a racist Trump and his lapdog GOP Congress.
With the new "zero tolerance" policy in place, you're going to be hearing a lot more stories like the nightmares that Alma Jacinto and Estaban Pastor experienced in the weeks ahead. Immigration experts from groups like the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project say they're already seeing a 75 percent spike in family separations this year — throwing hundreds of more kids into this messed-up system where children literally get lost.
The spring of 2018 is a moment when many people are placing all their hopes for change on November's midterm elections — but that may be too late for too many traumatized families. The people who did an amazing job in the winter of 2018 flooding airports and turning the tide against the Muslim travel ban need to throw themselves into this issue with the same fierce urgency of now. On Capitol Hill, I would urge the handful of moderate Republicans fearful of getting swamped in a "wave election," eager to show some humanity on the immigration issue, to speak out and work with Democrats to undo this policy right now, and not in 2021 under a much-anticipated new president.