Is this how it happens? A historic, atrocious human rights crisis is unfolding at the U.S.’s border detention centers, and yet normal life, at least for some people, is carrying on uninterrupted. My Facebook and Instagram feeds are filled with sunny photos of happy, healthy, well-fed, and well-rested children going off to summer day camp, insulated lunchbox-coolers in tow, as if, another universe away but in the very same country, hundreds of migrant children and their families were not sleeping on concrete floors beneath aluminum blankets, the lights on all night; dirty, sick, and, in some cases, dying. The only difference is that the former children and families are often white and were born here while the latter are brown and were not.
I don’t care—for once—about Kate Middleton going to Wimbledon. I don’t care about American flag sneakers and the conservative outrage over them. If there is anything to be outraged about, it’s the horror taking place on our soil and our apparent ability to turn a blind eye to all of it, as if it were a streaming show that is just too depressing to watch. There is nothing else that matters right now except for the inhumanity that members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Joaquin Castro, saw inside one “detention center” in Clint, Texas, on Monday.
The horrors witnessed by the lawmakers, and also revealed by recent reports, are too many and harrowing to adequately summarize: women, separated from their children, going 15 days without showering; drinking water from the toilet after faucets broke down; “children as young as seven and eight, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met,” lawyers told the New York Times; people denied basic sanitary products like soap and toothpaste. A new ProPublica report has revealed that Border Protection guards trade despicable jokes about the conditions in a secret, sexist Facebook group, including commenting “Oh well” after the death of a 16-year-old in custody this past May, and sharing vulgar illustrations of Ocasio-Cortez engaging in a sex act with a migrant.
“Imagine how they treat the women trapped inside,” AOC said on Twitter.
I can see why some people look away, because the truth is almost too much to bear. It is horrific and disturbing and sickening; it does make me feel powerless beyond donating money and calling my New York representatives, who already agree that it’s appalling. And, all the while, there is a distinct “nothing to see here” sort of gaslighting coming from the upper echelons of government—the very people responsible. See: Vice President Mike Pence explaining the crisis away in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, pretending it’s congressional Democrats’s fault and that this could all be wiped away with an appropriations bill, as if the Trump White House is powerless to stop it (if white children were held in such conditions for even one day, they would stop it). As if Trump’s own ramped-up ICE policy didn’t lead to family separation or the border camps in the first place. God’s love is said to know no bounds, but Pence’s devout Christianity, apparently, knows both race and country origin.
What Pence is missing, of course, is that the crisis at the border is not, fundamentally, about partisan politics. “This is about the preservation of our humanity,” Rep. Pressley said on Monday after visiting the holding center in Clint; her shouting finally feeling like the appropriate response to what is happening inside. (Meanwhile, protesters lobbed racist vitriol at her.) But the situation, of course, is also about immigration policy. More than 50 years ago, my grandparents fled Communist Cuba with their eight-year-old, my father, and sought asylum in the United States. Now, migrating here with the same desperation and the same hope is a crime. It shouldn’t be.
This is how it happens, I guess: it’s “easier” to look back, read the history books and decry the Nazi concentration camps and the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II from a safe distance. It’s harder, though, to confront the dark history happening in our country right now, right before our very eyes. In this strange, alternate universe, some privileged people—most of us—continue coating their children in paraben-free sunscreen and tucking them in at night while migrant families—risking their lives to escape the violence and peril in their own countries—are barely surviving in prisons. Anyone who condemns the camps of the past must also condemn the camps of today. As is being shouted at protests: Never again is now.