Trump’s border cruelty is a test of our national character
13 min read
In early June, I traveled to “The Valley,” as the McAllen-Brownsville area of Texas is called, down where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico. This river, the fourth longest in the US, forms the entire Texas-Mexico border, meandering south and east 1,250 miles from our far-west desert city of El Paso to the semi-tropical tip of my state. Its cartographic function aside, the narrow and shallow Rio Grande has historically been viewed by families in the region as more a connector than a divider, and it has long fostered a rich, cross-fertilized culture along its length, uniting generations of us Americanos with our Mexicano neighbors.
While I had gone there to talk politics at a union conference, I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to wallow awhile in the rich Tex-Mex experience. So I took an extra half day to savor shrimp just-plucked from the Gulf, quaff a couple or three good Mexican cervezas, let my mind drift to the lazy tempo of palm trees swaying in the sea breeze, and generally absorb the area’s unique spirit, character, and centuries-old sense of place. Altogether pleasant…
Well… except that, just beyond the palms where I was floating in blissful reverie, a time bomb of sadistic immigration policy was ticking. Only a couple of days later the border would explode in a media conflagration that would char Washington and burn across America as the public learned that our tempestuous, tweety-bird president had decided The Valley would be ground zero for his political mugging of border-crossing families. Suddenly (and stupidly) he and his agents mounted a full-scale terrorist attack on thousands of migrant children– 10-year-olds, 4-year-olds, toddlers … and even babies as young as two months!
Many of these tykes have trekked hundreds of miles with parents and other adults along the dangerous route to El Norte. Others have migrated alone in an urgent attempt to escape rampaging gang violence and life-crushing poverty stalking them in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and parts of Mexico. Hoping for humanitarian refuge in the Land of the Free, these vulnerable people are instead being met at the Rio Grande by Trump’s newly fabricated “zero tolerance” policy against Latinx asylum seekers. His Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have been brusquely separating distraught children from their parents–mostly moms–whom they haul to a McAllen detention jail run by ICE (the ruthlessly cold Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency). Some of the terrorized children have been taken 60 miles away to Brownsville to be incarcerated in chain-link cages inside a windowless, 77,000-square-foot warehouse (a converted Walmart Supercenter) run by a private corporation under contract to Trump’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Other “alien children” have ended up in facilities as far away as New York City.
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There’s no need for me to chronicle each step in this Trump-run-amuck saga, for nearly everyone has seen shocking videos and photos of his troops seizing and ripping apart families. Again, and again, we’ve heard recordings of bewildered, anguished, and sobbing children and absorbed weeks of 24/7 coverage and commentary about this flagrantly immoral assertion of Trumpist autocracy. And we’ve heard the bizarre twists, turns, and tweets of Trump, Sessions, Spence, Kelly, Huckabee-Sanders, Nielson, et al. trying to rationalize their intentionally cruel policy. Rather, this edition of The Lowdown will consider the deeper issue of what their relentless pursuit of zero tolerance says–not just about them, but also about us.
Although deportation injustices have long been a blot on our country’s “Give me your tired, your poor” pretensions, Trump has turned immigration policy into a despotic nightmare of presumed guilt, mass incarceration, and what amount to death-sentence deportations. The following vignettes reveal how “zero tolerance” violates the rights of immigrants, while undermining our own rights and, in the process, shriveling the basic value of fairness that binds democratic societies together.
GOVERNMENT BY PANIC Early on Sunday morning, April 1, our Head Fool received a report from his most trusted intelligence source. “Small army of migrants marching toward the United States,” headlined his favorite show–Fox & Friends. The commander-in- chief wasted no time in responding to this imminent threat, reflexively trumpeting to his loyalists that a caravan of some 1,500 marauding Latinx militants was coming to crash our southern gates. “Getting more dangerous,” the chief shrieked in a tweet immediately following the right-wing TV report. “Caravans coming,” he warned. “Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW.”
"The issue isn't just jobs. Even slaves had jobs. The issue is wages." --Jim Hightower
The image of an invading “army” became the perfect bugaboo to rally America’s xenophobic right wing behind the extremist anti-immigrant measures that White House strategists, Attorney General Sessions, and other political opportunists had been developing for weeks. Demagogic demonization of brown-skinned foreigners was key to ramming through their nasty scheme: to unilaterally decree every asylum seeker a criminal and seize their children as political hostages. Trump had long been pounding his nativist, racist theme that Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans) are rapists and drug dealers. In April he doubled down, insisting that immigrants pour across our southern border and “infest our country.”
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Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) provides free or low-cost legal services to immigrant families and refugees. Its work in Texas went viral when Trump’s zero tolerance policy became headline news. raicestexas.org
The Texas Civil Rights Project has been on the ground at the border representing separated families. It has long worked to protect Texans through its work on criminal justice reform, voting rights, and more. It’s got volunteer opportunities, too. texascivilrightsproject.org
Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) protects unaccompanied migrant children wherever they are on their journeys. It provides legal services; outreach in the U.S., Mexico, and Central America; and reintegration support for kids returning alone from the US to their home countries. supportkind.org/get-involved
The Emergent Fund maintains a list of local organizations in Texas, Arizona, California, and Florida that need our support. low.do/separation
Two groups doing great work nationally are United We Dream, the largest youth-led immigration community in the US (unitedwedream.org) and Mijente, a new home for Latinx & Chicanx organizing (mijente.net).
Thus, Trump used a caravan of humble Hondurans, wending their way north, to generate a fog of fear to rationalize his planned attack on migrant families. (In finest Trump fashion, he even monetized the political windfall, quickly sending a fundraising email for his re-election campaign that touted his heroic effort to “STOP the caravan.”) The Hondurans, however, were not animals, invaders or infesters, but desperate families simply seeking refuge in the US from life-threatening horrors at home. A presidential lie is not unusual. America’s strong democratic heart has survived many of them. But a presidency of lies slows that heartbeat with ever-increasing injections of despotism.
BEWARE OF BIBLE THUMPERS Samuel Johnson didn’t get it quite right in 1775 when he declared that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” In fact, our political scoundrels are reaching an even deeper level of dishonesty when, after they wrap their scurrilous policies in patriotism, they tie off the package with a Biblical ribbon. The Bible is the scoundrels’ most reliable hidey-hole. Over the decades, pushers of America’s unholiest policies have attempted to cover their evil intent by intoning: “The Bible says…” Jeff “The Scoundrel” Sessions tried this in June when he insisted that his policy of literally tearing immigrant infants and toddlers from their parents’ arms was godly: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government, because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”
Holy bovine excrement! This pathetic man, a self-proclaimed “conservative,” piously insists that we commoners submit to the tyrannical rule of Trumpian authority because God Hisownself ordained The Donald to be president. Wow–that would be one mean god!
Sessions’ pitch for autocratic-theocratic rule is not only wholly un-American, but also Biblically perverse: Romans 13 advocates rule based on love and justice. (It’s also revealing of Jeff’s character and perspective that he invoked a Bible verse infamously cited by 19th century racists to defend slavery as divine law.)
Indeed, “Obey the law!” is one of the Trump tribe’s key rationalizations for the despicable assault on desperate refugees. Note, however, that while they’re barking this command at foreign asylum seekers, they’re also using it to suppress US citizens who question the legality and morality of the policy. Don’t give us sob stories about terrified tykes, they snarl. Blame the immigrant parents who illegally violated our border. Wrong! It is perfectly legal for refugees to enter this country and ask border guards for asylum. Far from being criminals, the Latinx families Trump has been tearing apart and throwing in jail are playing by our rules.
The good news is that it has dawned on Americans of all stripes (including some religious leaders and rank-and-file Republicans) that if the GOP’s radical authoritarians can get away with their unconscionable onslaught on children, they can (and will) come after any of us. Trump, Sessions, and their allies are not conservatives, but corporate aristocrats, and their usurpation of migrant rights is meant to undermine all of our people’s democratic rights.
IT’S NOT TRUMP ALONE Yes, he’s bone-deep awful, but at least he has the excuse of being an incurable pendejo (Spanish for a narcissistic, imbecilic, spoiled brat). He would be inconsequential except that something even more insidious than Trump marched triumphantly with him into Washington last year: selfish opportunism. Rather than step up and protect the public interest from a president they knew was rash and harebrained, the capitol city’s supposedly responsible Republicans humored and flattered him. Trump’s maniacal recklessness, they wagered, could be a cultural wedge to divide and distract the nation while they pushed tax breaks for the rich, privatization of everything from schools to the post office, usurpation of people’s voting rights, and other policies the public adamantly opposes. Trump is the blustery front, but equally culpable in the damage to American democracy are the blowhard quislings-his sycophant cabinet officers and the craven, cowardly congresscritters who privately roll their eyes at his antics but publicly smile, nod, and enable his worst outrages.
Another dangerous undercurrent in Trump’s Washington is the spread of a cancerous, “I’m-just-following-orders” mentality among agency officials and operatives. This comes straight from Trump’s “you’re fired” bossism, which intimidates employees from arguing against stupid policies dictated by the ideologues and ignoramuses above them. We saw this awkward reticence on display in a June interview of Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE. Asked if he thinks Trump’s zero-tolerance policy is humane, Homan froze. After a long, on-air pause, he mumbled: “I think, I think it’s the law.” Another pause. Then, the ultimate bureaucratic dodge: “I must follow the law.”
In this dicey time of immoral leadership at the top, the opposite of courage is not cowardice, but conformity.
OH, POSH AND TOSH! Just when you thought the ideological bubble of right-wing extremists couldn’t drift any further from earthly realities, Fox News yak show host Laura Ingraham rocketed farther out than Pluto. On a June 18 broadcast, she demonstrated her reportorial depth and class consciousness by declaring that the chain- link cages where terrorized children are warehoused miles from their parents “are essentially summer camps.” Ingraham was merely detached from reality, but another Fox News commentator, Ann Coulter, was completely unhinged. She argued that what we were seeing with our own eyes wasn’t actually happening: “[T]hese child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks 24/7 right now–do not fall for it, Mr. President.” In the oxygen-starved stratosphere of right-wing media, what’s “true” is the fantastic claim that hundreds of dark-haired Shirley Temples have deployed to stage a mass cry-in and dupe Americans.
GET OFF MY LAWN Hidebound Trump partisans keep insisting that their man is not insane, while the rest of us watch him rant like a dotty old geezer. In a bristly series of July tweets, he imperiously declared that he would not allow “those people” to be given any legal avenue to address their plight. “No Judges or Court Cases,” he growled. “Tell the people ‘OUT,’ and they must leave, just as they would if they were standing on your front lawn.”
Old Man Trump has gone completely screwy about the rule of law in our nation. If you stood on Mar-a-Lago’s lawn, he might have you removed by force, but the law mandates access to a court to plead your case and seek justice. That’s the American way, regardless of whether a belligerent, autocratic property owner likes it. Unless, of course, his highness intends to nullify 230 years of legal protection for The People’s democratic rights.
BABIES ON TRIAL We Americans believe everyone has a right to their day in court. But what if the court is turned into a loony bin? Welcome to the federal immigration courts that are struggling to deal with the insanity of Trump’s decree that all Latinx asylum seekers be prosecuted as criminals.
How insane is it? Toddlers, separated from their parents by border guards, are put on trial for entering the US illegally. “We were representing a three-year-old in court,” said a dismayed lawyer, “and the child–in the middle of the hearing–started climbing up on the table. It really highlighted the absurdity of what we’re doing with kids.”
Not just doing “with” them, but to them. The expectation that these little ones, after fleeing unimaginable trauma in their home country and then suffering the terror of being torn from their parents, can mount a legal defense has rightly been labeled “unconscionable” and “grossly inappropriate” by experts. But I would add, inexpertly, that it is also insane and evil.
Johan, a one-year-old Honduran taken from his amnesty-seeking father by border agents, was hauled into federal immigration court in July. As an AP reporter wrote, the baby briefly played with a ball, drank from a bottle, then “cried hysterically.” (The law doesn’t even require that children have a lawyer to represent them!) The exasperated judge said he was too “embarrassed” to try explaining this judicial proceeding: “I don’t know who you would explain it to, unless you think that a one year old could learn immigration law.”
Maybe he could try explaining it to the US president who has foisted this lunacy on us.
REINVENTING MATH Even though the number of undocumented border crossers has dropped this year, Trump and his cohort have jacked-up frantic rhetoric about a growing migrant “crisis.”
They cite stats from the CBP, the paramilitary border patrol agency, showing a shocking 73 percent spike last year in violent attacks on border agents by migrants. The agency reported 786 attacks last year, including one incident in the Rio Grande Valley in which 126 agents were assaulted by migrants hurling rocks, bottles, and tree branches. That’s truly incredible. As in, unbelievable–and for good reason.
Those statistics are pure propaganda. Just three weeks after Trump’s election, CBP launched a new-math formula for reporting “attacks”: Rather than counting actual incidents, CBP adds the number of agents present, multiplies by the number of migrants present, then multiplies that total by the number of projectiles that might have been thrown. Thus, it turns out that last year’s alarming incident in The Valley was not an assault on 126 agents, but on seven–who were reportedly threatened by six migrants, wielding three projectiles. Using CBP math, seven times six is 42, times three equals 126 “attacks.” Voila, we have a crisis. (By the way, Trump’s CBP considers simply holding a rock an “assault,” so even if they aren’t thrown, they still count as a multiplier.) When a reporter asked if any of the seven agents had been injured, the CBP did not respond. Yet the faked stat is still brandished by right-wing politicos and talk show screechers, and it has been repeated as fact by such mainline news outlets as NPR and Newsweek. Despotism feeds on such idiocy.
A TEST OF CHARACTER Irony sometimes sneaks up on you, as it did on Pres. Trump last month. June 20 was World Refugee Day, commemorated annually with events in more than 100 countries to raise awareness about the plight of people forced to flee oppression in their home countries. Trump probably didn’t notice, for June 20 was also another day of heavy lifting in his team’s furious determination to slam the door on families hoping for refuge. The irony is that their iron-fisted treatment of migrants generated much more awareness of refugee abuse than all the other global education efforts combined. More importantly, their vindictive family separation policy sparked a massive grassroots backlash here and around the world, finally forcing the administration to back off from some of the worst of its humanitarian abuses.
But they are mad dogs and ideologues, so they won’t stop … unless and until we stop them. Remember that while Trump & Co. are the perpetrators of this god-awful policy, they’re doing it in our name, with our money. Remember, too, that the mass migration he’s squawking about is largely composed of victims of societal breakdowns in Central America that trace directly back to the civil wars and military juntas that previous US governments help instigate, arm, and back. Yes, the relative freedoms and opportunities available in the US do “pull” migrants across the Rio Grande, but the most powerful force behind today’s influx from the South is the “push” of our country’s repressive military policies and exploitative economic policies. Neither political party in Washington is addressing that push–which is the only “comprehensive immigration reform” that will actually work.
So this is not just a matter of Trump’s character, but also of ours. Our government’s immigration policies raise a fundamental question about our people’s moral fortitude: Will we as a society stand up to our own xenophobic, demagogic government pressing us to abandon–no, to betray–America’s historic democratic values?