Border Cruelty

It is time for a screed about what is happening at America’s southern border.  There has been a long term decrease in illegal border crossings from Mexico, but there has been in the last year or two an increase in the number of families, mothers and children, who have made that crossing, presumably to avoid the violence and lack of income opportunities that plague their home countries, which are El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. So how are these refugees greeted? Children are separated from their parents and the mothers deported without their children even though they had surrendered at the American border to American Border Police so that they might apply for political asylum, which is their right under international and American law. But the President has said that he doesn’t think it right to allow them that loophole and, in fact, has made it harder for immigrants to ask for asylum and forced many of them to remain in Mexico without food and shelter until it is their turn to apply for asylum which, some reports say, means that one family a day will be processed.

Now, President Trump has been a remarkably ineffective President. He does not know how to operate the levers of power held by his office. So he has not had an impact on foreign policy. There are those on again off again negotiations with North Korea which add up to nothing. He withdrew from the Iran Deal but the Iranians remain in compliance with it because the European signatories to the agreement have encouraged them to do so, and Putin has been given his head to deal with Syria as he pleases, which is pretty much what Obama would have done, and Trump’s cabinet sees to it that American military force continues to operate in the Muslim world. In domestic affairs, the President gave rich people a trillion dollars with no strings attached, but all that proves is that the United States has plenty of money to spend. Yes, Trump’s cabinet has reversed many progressive regulation measures, but those can be reversed when a Democratic Administration comes in.  Mostly, Trump is nothing but bluster. He is preoccupied with his wall, which is getting nowhere.

The Southern Border is different. This is a shameful moment in American history. Not since Andrew Jackson moved the Cherokee to Oklahoma down “The Trail of Tears” have we seen such a singular atrocity-- slavery a very long term atrocity. Not even the internment camps for Japanese during World War II separated mothers from children and, to boot, the Trump Administration kept no records of which child belonged to which parent so that they could easily be restored to one another when the time came to do that. Rather, the Secretary of Homeland Security quibbles over whether the children are really being kept in cages because the chain link fences in which they are kept are large rather than small. The Administration view is that they are engaged in these cruelties to deter other mothers from traveling to the United States to achieve asylum. This administration has a horror of immigrants. They do not believe that “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is part of the American credo. To the contrary, they leave mothers and children to languish in Tijuana without support. A mother told a PBS interviewer that she did not know how to explain to her young child why she could not supply him with cereal and milk. (I hope the PBS person gave the woman fifty or one hundred dollars of her own money just so as to help herself think something could be done.)

What would Eleanor Roosevelt have done under similar circumstances? She would have put one of her memos into FDR’s satchel for nighttime reading and he would have authorized the building of villages in the United States along the border to welcome these political and economic refugees. No cages, just well light, warm places with plenty of privacy and with plenty of food and other provisions so that women could look after their children. Then Eleanor would have conducted inspection tours of these places, including their lavatories, so as to make sure they were up to snuff. She would have chatted with the women and petted the children and quizzed the people in charge to make sure they were doing what they were supposed to. And, oh yes, FDR would have increased the number of immigration justices so as to speed up the asylum process and entered into talks with the three central American nations to see what could be done so that people didn’t want to flee north.

These measures seem merely to stand for common sense, but that is not how Trumpians see it. Rather, they see it as a problem when it is not one, America well capable of absorbing this low number of families into its society without any trouble, especially when the United States is, at the moment, a full employment economy. Moreover, the way Trumpians seek to resolve problems is by finding people to punish. They feel satisfied when victims are made to feel pain as opposed to feeling satisfied when bad things are ameliorated, and that is just not right. People who think the United States has to safeguard its borders or that the United States doesn’t have enough land or a strong enough economy to welcome in these few numbers of refugees should consider that sometimes doing the humane thing is the only thing that matters.

Let us be analytically clear about what is happening at the southern border by comparing it to other kinds of events that have found their way into the news in the past few weeks.There is the college cheating scandal where parents bribed coaches to include their non athlete children on their recruitment lists so that the children would be admitted into some top rung colleges. This is, strictly speaking, a scandal in that it is the violation of law so as to accomplish an end which might be understandable if it were not performed illegally. Getting into college is a kind of rat race and you can imagine parents going so far, just as you can image men hiring prostitutes to satisfy their sexual desires, as Robert Kraft did. Engaging in such behavior is a source of embarrassment rather than deep moral opprobrium. I can feel sorry for Felicity Huffman getting herself involved in this, and the scandal does raise the question of what would be the right criteria to use for college admissions. A scandal always points to a social issue, whether that is whether sex work should be legal or whether Teapot Dome showed that vested interests exerted and still exert too much influence in Washington.

I can also look dispassionately at the far more terrible action of the shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand and note that he was engaged in a war, so he thought, between white people and those he thought the enemies of white people. He is not to be laughed at nor morally condemned but rather measures are to be taken to thwart the actions of his and his supporters in the race war they have declared. We need not invoke the idea that but for the grace of god, as we would for scandals nor the moral outrage generated by the events at the southern border, just a calm eyed view that, yes indeed, this is a kind of war and we should pursue it as such.

The events at the southern border are, strictly speaking, an atrocity. That is a term used to describe actions taken in wartime that are outside the rules of warfare. The massacre in the Katyn Forest in Poland during World War II was an atrocity. The establishment of concentration camps for Bosnians in Srebrenica in 1992 was an atrocity, as was the killing of black Union soldiers by Confederate soldiers at Fort Pillow in 1864 was also an atrocity. These events were different in scope but they shared the same emotion: that something as outrageous as ex-slave soldiers could be met with anything but rage and violence. In the present instance, there isn’t even a real war going on, but the President claims that there is an invasion of the United States by caravans of refugees from Central American countries, and that he is taking necessary measures to control that invasion, even if some people don’t see the necessity of taking tough measures. But the truth is that not everything can be done even if there is a real war on. There are limits, and stepping over those limits earns moral opprobrium that is not quickly eradicated or forgiven.

I don’t know whether any of the Democrats who are seeking the nomination will make an issue of the southern border refugee crisis. But I do think that long after Trump ceases to be President, his administration will be remembered not for his feckless foreign policy or its corruption or Trump’s own general seediness but for what he did to those mothers and children.