President Donald Trump has taken to calling the situation at the border not just a security "crisis" but also a "humanitarian" one. He should
know because he created it.
But even before Trump's zero-tolerance enforcement policy unleashed new horrors, inhumanity at the border was part and parcel of America's immigration enforcement. The silver lining, however, is that Trump's open embrace of such policies is inviting a level of scrutiny—and generating a level of disgust—that might pave the way for reform.
Hardly a day goes by when some shocking story doesn't break about this administration's treatment of immigrants—or suspected immigrants. ICE recently detained a 27-year-old decorated Marine vet with mental health issues who is an American citizen. Why? Because he is Hispanic so it likely assumed he was here illegally.
It is also becoming apparent that the administration separated far more than "just" 2,700 migrant kids from Central American parents seeking asylum as originally thought. Indeed, we are finding out now that separations started as soon as President Trump entered the Oval Office and before former Attorney General Jeff Sessions even formally embraced the policy. Worse, the administration failed to keep proper records when taking away the kids and, therefore, we can't be sure it'll ever be able to reunite all of them.
As if all this is not bad enough, it implemented its policy of mass detaining children and parents without proper preparations. Hence, it is housing many of them in constantly lit, freezing-cold holding pens meant for drug dealers. The migrants reportedly sleep wrapped in thin blankets on mats or aluminum foil on cement floors with poor food and scarce running water to shower or brush their teeth.
Toddlers were being herded in hastily constructed "tender-age shelters" or equally horrible facilities. Abuse is reportedly rampant. A state review of a Virginia detention facility found that immigration authorities used restraining techniques on children that included shackling and strapping them to chairs and placing mesh bags over their heads and sometimes even sending them into solitary confinement if they misbehaved. Videos of an Arizona facility show staffers shoving kids and dragging them across rooms by their hair.
The sad part, however, is that the Trump administration isn't the first to use such tactics—it has merely scaled them up. Every president over the last century and a half has allowed similar abuse.
The country's reign of terror on the southern border has its genesis in 1924 when Congress passed its first major piece of restrictionist legislation that ended what until then had been the unfettered movement of people back and forth from Mexico. This law made it a crime to enter the country from anywhere except designated ports. And to enforce this provision, Greg Grandin points out in The Intercept, the border patrol relied on recruits from the resurgent Ku Klux Klan who "beat, shot, and hung migrants with regularity" along the Texas and California border.
President Dwight Eisenhower's notorious Operation Wetback in 1954 took matters to a whole new level. A former general, Eisenhower hired military brass to use military tactics not just at the border but in the interior—inaugurating the wretched policy of interior enforcement— rounding up and mass deporting over 800,000 unauthorized Mexicans in one fell swoop.
But Eisenhower, to his credit, also attempted to address the undocumented problem at its root by expanding the bracero—guest worker— program to allow more Mexicans to legally work in the United States. That helped reduce abuse—until President Lyndon Johnson, the paragon of progressive virtue, scrapped the program in 1965, setting the stage for future crackdowns and renewed abuse that provides an important backdrop to the horrors we are witnessing today.
Much before the Trump administration embraced child separation as official policy, border patrol was already using it unofficially in the 1970s, Grandin notes by pointing to a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative series from the early 1980s. When agents encountered a family at the border, they reportedly nabbed the youngest member first because that would induce the whole family to turn itself in rather than try to flee. They allegedly threatened to take kids away from moms "forever" if moms didn't confess that they were trying to enter illegally—and when they did, they'd take the kids anyway, placing them in foster homes or deporting them or letting them languish in jails. Beatings and rape of girls as young as 12 were reportedly common. Border patrol even allegedly traded young Mexican women they caught at the border to the Los Angeles Rams for season tickets.
Between 1982 and 1990, Mexico City sent 24 protests to the State Department on behalf of Mexicans injured and murdered by border patrol. But instead of addressing these complaints, President Bill Clinton criminalized immigration further when he pushed—and signed—the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that made it easier to deport ever more immigrants for ever more minor infractions.
Immigration enforcement agencies went to town after this law was passed. Another Intercept investigation based on the account of a CBP whistleblower who worked for the agency between 2009 and 2011 paints a truly horrific picture. The whistleblower claimed that he witnessed agents shoot an unarmed woman and threaten to rape children. One agent allegedly chided him for offering water to a severely dehydrated 4-year-old and his migrant mom whom they picked up during a patrol. The agent reportedly took the bottle away from the child before he could take a sip saying "no amnesty here."
In the name of zero tolerance, the Trump administration has started using anti-harboring laws to prosecute humanitarian workers like Scott Warren who leave drinking water tanks for migrants crossing the harsh Arizona desert. But the whistleblower noted, even before Trump arrived, CBP agents would reportedly vandalize water tanks that folks like Warren left in the desert in the face of an alarming spike in dehydration deaths among border crossers. Worse, the agents would allegedly dump even migrants' own water and food and leave them stranded in the desert.
An ACLU investigation last summer revealed shocking neglect and abuse of children between 5 and 17 by Customs and Border Protection between 2009 and 2014 when Barack Obama was president. A quarter of the children interviewed reported physical, including sexual, abuse and half reported verbal abuse like death threats. Stun guns and worse were reportedly routinely used to restrain kids.
But Obama's dulcet tones lulled watchdog agencies into complacency even as he deported record numbers of immigrants. Trump's harsh talk and open contempt for immigrants, on the other hand, is mobilizing them into action.
The ACLUs and Intercepts of the world have doubled down on investigating the dark underbelly of immigration enforcement under Trump, publishing several exposes over the last year. Progressives who were content to look the other way when enforcement excesses were taking place under Obama are now suddenly woke and spearheading a call to abolish ICE, the kind of thing that used to be confined to "wacko" libertarian circles.
And it is not just the posture of activists that is shifting—public opinion is too. Americans are becoming more protective of immigrants since Trump entered the Oval Office. Gallup polls show that a record high of 75 percent agree that immigration is a "good thing" for the country— up four points in the last two years.
All of this might finally cue up the country for a top-to-bottom cleanup of border enforcement once Trump leaves the Oval Office. His malice toward immigrants might achieve what good intentions can't.
This column originally appeared in The Week