The other day, a veteran immigration lawyer named R. Andrew Free shared an anecdote that sheds some really critical light on what’s happening on America’s southern border — a tale that not surprisingly got buried amid a sandstorm of news about mothers not knowing where their kids are, audiotapes of anguished, crying children, and now the protests to end the human rights abuses that the current government is undertaking in our name.
What Free described on Twitter was an opportunity that few people get: A chance to personally confront the president of the United States and question him about his immigration policies. Free wrote that the answers he received from the so-called leader of the free world “shook me to my core.”
The immigration lawyer had been to two large detention centers in Texas where U.S. officials were holding hundreds of migrant families from Central America, often for months at a time. Free said some of the conditions at these makeshift detention camps were appalling.
“I remember hearing the constant, violent coughing and sickness of small children, and the worry of their mothers who stood in the sun outside the clinic all day only to be told their kids should ‘drink water,’” Free tweeted. “I remember nearly doubling over when I saw the line of strollers.”
When Free had a chance encounter with the president at a political event, he warned him that the detention centers would be “a stain on his legacy.” He said the president wanted to know if Free was an immigration lawyer — implying that everyday citizens weren’t worried about what goes on at the border — and then said, according to Free: “I’ll tell you what we can’t have, it’s these parents sending their kids here on a dangerous journey and putting their lives at risk.” The message that Free took away was that the president saw family detention as a deterrent to keep more refugees from coming.
This happened in 2015. The president with the looming stain on his legacy was Barack Obama.
Flash forward to 2018 and millions of us are now focused on what’s happening at the border with the kind of burning intensity that Free felt in 2014 and 2015, when waves of mostly teenagers fleeing rape, murder and runaway gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador made the dangerous trek to America, yearning to breathe free.
Who could not be troubled by the audio of the screaming 6-year-old not knowing where her mommy is, or by the 5-year-old boy in Michigan drawing pictures of the daddy he was separated from, or the other human rights outrages of “zero tolerance” policies that a racist, xenophobic, and autocratic president is using to rip families apart — in essence, doubling or tripling down on whatever stain lingered from the mid-2010s. But while I’m very much disturbed — as are most of you — by the images of 2018, I’m also greatly troubled by the pictures that have resurfaced from 2014, showing children sleeping in cages or wearing those hideous foil wrappers. Why didn’t more of us speak out more forcefully about this first wave of treatment that was clearly also not humane?
Let’s be honest: Do you think it’s outrageous when an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department argues that kids as little as 3-years-old are capable of defending themselves in American immigration courts. I know I do. But that happened — with few people paying attention — in 2016, when the attorney general was Loretta Lynch and Obama was POTUS.
Then there was the Associated Press scoop that went viral last week about migrant kids as young as 14 who say they were beaten while handcuffed, locked up in solitary confinement, and left naked in concrete cells at a juvenile detention center in Virginia — which happened in 2015 and 2016, long before Donald J. Trump became our 45th and current president.
Right now, the protest movement that, arguably, pressured Trump into ending family separations — for now — is turning its focus to the cruelty of family detention, which could also keep kids in a prison-type setting for months, albeit with their parents. So it’s worth noting that the Obama administration was in court as recently as 2016 fighting for exactly that, the right to detain families indefinitely.
My own soul-searching inspired me to go back and look what I wrote when the first wave of mostly unaccompanied kids was showing up at the border on 2014. The answer is that a) I didn’t cover it nearly enough and b) when I did write about it, I took the easy route of expressing — completely justified and appropriate — outrage at what I was seeing at the time, which was right-wing politicians and their followers who were demagoguing the border crisis in the worst possible ways, falsely accusing refugees of bringing disease and even harassing them. For me, the boiling point in 2014 came when a group of angry, American flag-waving right-wingers surrounded buses and hurled epithets at buses of migrants trying to reach a government facility in Murietta, Calif.
These right-wing protesters yelled epithets and turned away buses of refugees at a processing center in Murietta, Calif., in July 2014
Here’s what I wrote then:
No one has an easy answer. These children should not be making the long trek to the United States – because that journey endangers their lives. And like all other nations, America can’t have fully open borders and can’t shelter and feed every child of the world who would like to come here, not all at once. But we can do a lot better as a people than yelling and blocking buses of moms and kids, and we can expect a lot better from our politicians beyond warehousing them in substandard facilities before racing them back to neighborhoods where they may be killed.
Looking back, that’s not wrong (although I should have noted that making a dangerous trek to the U.S. instead of facing gang violence and death in Honduras is a totally rational choice) but I should have said even more, and I should have called out the Obama administration much more forcefully for providing those substandard warehouses, the ones pictured above.
Look, I don’t think Obama was a monster, and I’m not arguing that. He did push for a more rational and more humane immigration policy and — when denied a vote by obstructionist and anti-democratic GOP forces in Congress — successfully protected (for a time) the young “Dreamer” immigrants who enrich life in this country, by way of executive orders. When the issue of family separation first arose in 2014, Obama administration officials rejected that as “not who we are.”
But Obama also amped up deportations to record levels — which, in some cases, separated families here in the United States — and he did little to radically alter the sick culture of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that would be “unshackled” the moment that tinhorn despots like Trump and AG Jeff Sessions arrived on the scene. And, probably fearful of midterm election politics, Obama didn’t treat the 2014 event as what it really was: a humanitarian refugee crisis.
Here’s something else that really bothers me: The same kind of sick people who accuse refugees of carrying diseases, who accuse little kids seeking to escape gang violence of being gang members, who surrounded a bus of full of desperate freedom seekers in Murietta and shouted epithets at them, now feel some kind of moral validation in the imperfections of Obama’s policies. That makes zero sense: How can you claim validation that your political enemy has a bad policy when the policies you support are 10x worse? Right-wing political debate has sunk to this inane level: Nothing ever about rational or, heaven forbid, humane policies, and everything about (and pardon me for quoting their political incorrectness) “owning the libtards.” Right-wingers need to start owning their enthusiastic support for fascist-style cruelty at the border. Any right-wing reader who wants to use this column of apology, or my criticism of the Obama administration, for their own warped xenophobic agenda can — and I say this in the spirit of Robert De Niro — go (bleep) themselves.
That said, this is also another case where progressives should don their “nuance caps” and think about what is a “Trump problem” and what is a deeper “America problem.” Although immigrants have been at the core of what actually has made America great, our immigration policies have too often been far from perfect — and things really started going off the rails in the 2000s when a) the rise of a homeland-security-state meant increasingly treating refugees as criminals and b) right-wing talk radio and the Fox News Channel saw boffo ratings in demonizing The Other. We didn’t do enough to stop this, and now we’re seeing the nightmare of what a proto-dictator like Trump can build atop this immoral foundation.
For myself, I apologize — and I don’t think it’s right for people to bury their heads in the Arizona desert sand about things that happened before Jan. 20, 2017. That 2014 picture at the top of this column? A former Obama speechwriter, Jon Favreau, tweeted it in a post attacking Trump, and when he was called out for the error, he simply deleted it. But you can’t delete truth. We need to own up to the past and say we’re sorry for when we could have done better — because that makes us better fighters against the human rights disasters that are taking place today.
I’m not saying that politics doesn’t matter — it matters a lot. If you’re outraged by the way that America is treating refugees from Central America, you need to vote in November, and vote your conscience. But the core of the problem includes partisan politics and yet transcends partisan politics. We don’t even frame this the right way: What’s happening at the border is not an “illegal immigration” problem but a humanitarian refugee crisis of people trying to flee violence and needless death at home, much as is occurring in Syria and Afghanistan. Too many times and in too many different ways, we’ve let down these people that a local Texas official — from that 2014 post — referred to as “the children of God.” We can’t go back in time, but we can do everything we can to get it right for the children of God this time around
This piece was originally published at Philadelphia Inquirer