Why the Hell Are We Locking Up Migrant Kids at All?

Originally Published by The Daily Beast.

There is no jail humane enough to hold these children.

Sally Kohn

Sally Kohn

12.27.18 4:45 AM ET

second child has died while in the custody of the United States Customs and Border Protection.  The death of this 8-year-old boy, Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, comes just days after the death of 7-year-old migrant Jakelin Caal Maquin, who was also in Homeland Security custody.  

While these deaths rightfully raise questions about conditions in detention facilities under the Trump administration, they should also raise questions about the fundamental brutality, inhumanity, and insanity of President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.  

We don’t know much yet about how this second child came to be in detention, but Jakelin Caal Maquin was one of 163 Guatemalans who turned themselves into Border Patrol at a border entry point along the southern edge of New Mexico. They were seeking asylum. And though Trump is trying to change the rules, doing so remains completely legal.

“No matter how or where people enter the country, U.S. law says they may make an affirmative claim for asylum,” Professors Greg Grandin and Elizabeth Oglesby explained in The Nation.  

In their article, Grandin and Oglesby recounted the history of Q’eqchi’-Mayas, who have long faced persecution in Guatemala (their persecutors often backed by the United States government) and who have sought refuge elsewhere. Jakelin Caal Maquin was precisely the person for whom legal pathways to asylum in the United States exist. But under the custody of Border Patrol, just days after her seventh birthday, Jakelin died of septic shock and cardiac arrest. 

Today, migrants who give themselves up at the U.S. border and request consideration for asylum are thrown in overcrowded, under-heated mass detention facility migrants refer to as “hieleras,” which is Spanish for ice boxes. Originally designed for single adults awaiting immigration processing, the Trump administration has used these inadequate facilities to warehouse migrant families; immigrant children and their parents sleep in row after row of mats on the floor.  

We should ask about the conditions in which Jakelin and others are being placed. But we must also ask why they are being put there in the first place. 

I personally take an expansive view of immigration—that the moments our nation has opened its doors and opened our minds have been our best. Despite deeply anti-Jewish sentiment throughout history, my own ancestors were able to come here and build a future that was impossible anywhere else —a pattern similar to Irish and Italian and East Asian immigrants. Once deeply, even violently, discriminated against, these groups were eventually reluctantly welcomed, and overtime integrated into the rich and complicated tapestry of America. Immigrants today enrich our nation’s culture, economy, and spirit as much as in the past. Small businesses are disproportionately started by immigrants, who account for 30 percent of small business growth. Go ahead and google that (Google, of course, was also started by immigrants).

But even if you’re a staunch conservative who opposes immigration, Trump’s border policies are ridiculous. Fully two-thirds of undocumented immigrants in the United States enter the country legally and then overstay their visas. Meanwhile, in the case of immigrants who present themselves at the United States border, they’re subject to an hour-long “credible fear” test in which they must demonstrate a well-founded fear that if they are sent back to their home countries, they will face persecution.  

Ninety percent of immigrants who take this test pass it. Which is all to say, if you genuinely have a concern about undocumented immigrants who are breaking the law, you would actually want to focus on those overstaying their visas—and pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation that fixes other broken parts of our system.

Instead, Trump has consistently focused on migration at the U.S. southern border because it’s a racialized fearmongering tactic to gin up outrage and hate among a segment of his political base. Attacking Latinos and portraying migrants as infested hordes who bring crime and sickness has nothing to do with actual patterns and problems in immigration and everything to do with a pattern of deliberately dehumanizing, racialized fearmongering and hate. 

For incompetent and incapable Trump to be a hero, he needs a helpless foil. And the scare tactics he employed during the campaign are only being turned up now that the disaster of his presidency is in full bloom. His hope is that his MAGA followers won’t notice that their jobs, their farms, their kids’ schools and the whole economy have been destroyed so long as they’re distracted by hate and, better yet, blame immigrants for their problems—instead of Trump.

Tear gassing migrants at the border was a brutally violent and hateful act. It was also a smokescreen. 

Trump doesn’t want to actually fix the immigration system. If he did, he wouldn’t be putting vulnerable, lawful asylum seekers in warehouses and cages, amidst inhumane conditions including limited medical care. He’d be focused on overstayed visas. But Trump doesn’t care what the real issues are, for which there are actual bipartisan solutions on the table. That’s because Trump desperately needs a broken immigration system that he can exacerbate and exploit.  

Of course, the downside isn’t just for his supporters, hoodwinked by their own hatred. The real price is paid by the vulnerable mothers and fathers and children who are dying for our nation’s help—and when they get here, are literally dying in the Trump administration’s hands.  

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