Five days after taking office, President Trump signed “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” – an executive order calling for the hiring of thousands of new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and the use of state and local police to enforce immigration law.
It effectively broadened the scope of who was at risk of being deported: “We cannot faithfully execute the immigration laws of the United States if we exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
And so, Trump’s war on immigrants began as he set in motion an enforcement machine long dreamed of by the nativist movement Trump had championed during his campaign.
In fact, the administration’s policies mirror the published “wish list” of the Center for Immigration Studies, a hate group that’s part of a network created by the late John Tanton, the white nationalist who founded the modern nativist movement. It’s no coincidence that White House aide Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s immigration policies, is a close ally of the Tanton network.
Now, on any given day, some 55,000 immigrants are packed into ICE detention centers across America awaiting deportation proceedings that can take months or even years to resolve. Another 20,000 are held inside Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) facilities.
Many of these individuals have lived and worked in their communities for years. Many others simply came to the border seeking asylum in the exact way our laws require. The people held in ICE custody are not being held on criminal charges – yet this civil detention mirrors the punishing conditions of U.S. prisons and jails in nearly every way.
Nevertheless, this administration has chosen what appears to be a strategy of deliberate, unrelenting cruelty. In 2018, journalists revealed that the administration was separating thousands of families at the border and putting children in kennel-like cages.
The tragic fact is, families and communities are being shattered not only at the border but all across America. Children, including U.S. citizens, are losing mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters to an uncertain fate. People are being deported to countries they hardly know – or where they face grave danger.
And Trump is not just targeting the people he calls “illegal aliens.”
Just this week, he once again floated the idea of using an executive order to end birthright citizenship for the children of noncitizens, calling it “frankly ridiculous.” This “ridiculous” right is enshrined in the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.”
Nowhere is the administration’s depravity on display more than in the facilities used by ICE and CBP to imprison immigrants.
Near El Paso, a university professor encountered what he called a “human dog pound,” where as many 150 men were held outdoors, behind a chain-link fence, in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. The men said they had been there for a month, were hungry and had not been able to change clothes the entire time.
In May, a Department of Homeland Security inspector found 900 people crammed into a space designed for no more than 125.
There have been numerous other reports of the inhumane treatment that immigrants in detention are enduring, with disastrous effects. We know that at least 26 people have died in ICE custody since Trump took office. And there is unseen suffering by tens of thousands of men, women and childrenwho are living in repurposed prisons and jails, deemed dirty and unsafe by ICE’s own inspector general.
Earlier this summer, lawyers who visited a facility in Clint, Texas, found hundreds of children living in intolerable conditions – hungry, deprived of basic needs and sleeping in concrete prison cells designed for adults.
The New Yorker wrote: “The conditions … were shocking: flu and lice outbreaks were going untreated, and children were filthy, sleeping on cold floors, and taking care of one another because of the lack of attention from guards. Some of them had been in the facility for weeks.”
The Associated Press reported that three girls were taking care of a 2-year-old boy “who had wet his pants and had no diaper and was wearing a mucus-smeared shirt.”
What hasn’t received as much attention is ICE’s shocking indifference toward immigrants’ medical and mental health care as well as their disability needs.
This past Monday, in partnership with the Civil Rights Enforcement and Education Center (CREEC) and Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), we filed a national, class-action lawsuit on behalf of 15 detained immigrants who are being denied the care they need.
We filed this case as a class action because the experiences of our clients offer examples of the inadequate care and inhumane conditions that individuals in ICE custody endure on a daily basis. It’s clear that systemic change is needed to prevent further abuse.
One of our plaintiffs is a Marine veteran who suffers from PTSD. Others are languishing in solitary confinement, and those who are deaf or mobility-impaired face discrimination on the basis of their disability and are denied access to accommodations.
In one heartbreaking case, an asylum seeker from Jordan lost his eyesight from a preventable condition. A doctor recommended surgery, but immigration officials denied him the care he needed and irreparable injury resulted.
Many of ICE’s 158 facilities are operated by private, for-profit prison companies that are paid an average of $208 per day for each person in their custody – more than double the $99 per day that the Federal Bureau of Prisons spends to incarcerate people convicted of federal crimes.
“This administration has functionally given ICE a blank check, with no accountability for how taxpayers’ money is spent,” says SPLC Deputy Legal Director Lisa Graybill. “Private contractors and local jails are making millions imprisoning immigrants in these conditions. Detained people are treated as pawns in this money-making scheme, and the consequences for them can be deadly.”
Our suit is vitally important.
If we don’t hold this administration accountable for its inhumane conditions, this situation will only worsen. Just this week, the administration announced a new rule under which it would be able to detain children and their families indefinitely.
That’s a recipe for more tragedy.
The plaintiffs in our case do not seek monetary damages for themselves. Instead, they aim to reform immigrant detention system and ensure our nation treats the human beings who have come to our shores, in many cases to escape violence and persecution, are treated with dignity and respect.
It was Hubert Humphrey who, in 1977, said that “the moral test of government is how that government treats those … who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
Today, our federal government would unquestionably fail that test.
P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:
How Trump’s policies are leaving thousands of asylum seekers waiting in Mexico from The New York Times
Photo by Friday Forward Pictures