Refusals by federal facilities to accept donations of diapers, soap, toothpaste, and other goods intended to alleviate the miserable conditions in which detained immigrant children are being held made the rounds this week courtesy of a report on the issue by The Texas Tribune. Federal officials improbably insist they need no help, and also point to the Antideficiency Act, which can be interpreted as prohibiting the acceptance of donations in most circumstances. It's an awful but hardly isolated case of government—a rule-making entity if there ever was one—insisting that it's bound to do terrible things by rules that it created.
The thwarted donations were motivated by recent reports about nasty conditions at immigrant detention facilities.
Inspectors "observed immediate risks or egregious violations of detention standards at facilities in Adelanto, CA, and Essex County, NJ, including nooses in detainee cells, overly restrictive segregation, inadequate medical care, unreported security incidents, and significant food safety issues," according to a June 3 report from the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General. With specific regard to the matter of toiletries, "detainees were not provided appropriate clothing and hygiene items to ensure they could properly care for themselves."
This was just days after the same agency found overcrowding at another detention facility.
"The conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities," reported Dolly Lucio Sevier after inspecting two detention facilities for children in Texas. "To deny parents the ability to wash their infant's bottles is unconscionable and could be considered intentional mental and emotional abuse."
Partially in response to reports of appalling conditions, the Trump administration requested $4.5 billion in emergency border funds, which the House approved this week. That would seem to confirm that the federal government took on bigger duties at the border than it was prepared to support, and that donations should have been welcome.
But, so sorry, the feds say, the law doesn't let us accept donated goods.
What the Antideficiency Act actually stipulates is that "an officer or employee of the United States Government or of the District of Columbia government may not accept voluntary services for either government or employ personal services exceeding that authorized by law except for emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property."
So, government officials and agencies aren't supposed to accept freebies and uncompensated favors. But that exception for "emergencies involving the safety of human life" would seem to leave a little wiggle room for donations of hygiene supplies intended to offset conditions so unsafe and unsanitary that a physician compares them to "torture facilities" and the government seeks emergency funding.
After all, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also under the Department of Homeland Security, has a whole set of procedures for accepting life-saving donations and even a handout "to help citizens understand how FEMA manages donated goods."
But the immigrant detentions are part of a high-profile border policy under multiple administrations, on which the Trump White House has placed special emphasis. To accept donations would be to concede that, despite all the noise the federal government has made about the border "crisis," it's not up to the job of supplying toothpaste, diapers, and lice shampoo to the kids it makes sleep on concrete floors.
Conceding that would be embarrassing.
Pointing to the rules as disallowing donations, then, becomes a way for government officials to avoid admitting that they're just not up to the mission they've taken on. Make enough rules and you can bind yourself to all sorts of convenient actions and inactions!
As a crowd-pleasing, vote-buying measure, Illinois officials expanded their state Medicaid plan back in 2014. Hundreds of thousands of new enrollees signed up—far more than anticipated. Unable to find the money to fund the swollen program, Illinois officials just didn't pay the tab for patients treated by medical providers. They argued that Medicaid wasn't a "core priority" that had to be funded first and in full, unlike payroll and pensions for government employees. Sorry we can't pay our bills, but that would be against the rules we set for ourselves…
When the unpaid bills tallied up to a whopping $3 billion, a federal judge ordered Illinois to cough up the cash and put the state government on a payment schedule. (Providers say they're still getting stiffed.)
What connects the unconscionable circumstances of border detainees with Illinois's deadbeatery?
Both are reminders that announcing grandiose policies is what politicians do, often to cheers and popular support. Following through, however, can be terribly inconvenient. It's very handy to have rules in place that you can point to as the reason you fail to live up to obligations and instead do irresponsible and awful things.
Irresponsible and awful implementation of grandiose promises can result in unpaid bills and sick kids lying on filthy floors. Sure, government does terrible things intentionally, but perhaps it's at its most contemptible when officials make promises and then tie their own hands so that they can act only in a half-assed way, making matters worse. They even—as we see in the case of the border detention centers—tie their hands so that they can avoid a bit of humiliation by letting members of the public undo some of the damage that has been done.
"We are looking at the possibility of using some of those donations going forward," a Customs and Border Protection official told reporters Tuesday. That raises the possibility that a few diapers and fresh lice combs might make their way to the detained kids even before new federal funds filter through the system—courtesy, I guess, of a newly convenient interpretation of the law.
It's fascinating to watch competing public relations priorities at work as outrage overwhelms embarrassment.
Fundamentally, nothing will have changed in the way government does what it does. Look for officials to continue making rules that "force" them to do terrible things when they don't want to do what's right.