Donald Trump recently experimented with a policy of stealing migrant and refugee children away from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. These children were then put in "tender care centers," Orwellian Newspeak for what were essentially prison camps for small children. In the face of public outcry, Donald Trump has now decided that the children and their families will be housed together in de facto concentration camps for an undetermined amount of time.
This is all part of a broader campaign to ensure that white Christian Americans remain the country's dominant group. The human cost of Trump's efforts to accomplish this goal is harm to the cognitive, emotional and physical development of children and other young people. Their parents and other caregivers are suffering as well: At least one has taken his own life after having his child stolen away from him by Trump's enforcers.
Images of these crying and terrified children have been seen around the world: This issue has become a massive national embarrassment. The cries of these children -- and the voices of border patrol or ICE officers who mock human suffering -- have moved many Americans to disgust and outrage. But what distinguishes those people who do nothing from those who are moved to action because their consciences and personal code of honor demand nothing less?
Zak Ringelstein, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Maine, is one of those Americans who decided that standing by and doing nothing in the face of social evil and cruelty was not an option. Last Friday, he left the campaign trail and traveled to McAllen, Texas, with the goal of bringing public attention to what was occurring at one of the detention centers where refugee and migrant families and children are being incarcerated. With the help of local residents and other people of conscience, Ringelstein attempted to bring water, toys, books and other supplies to the children and adults imprisoned at the McAllen facility. He was arrested by local police after demanding entry into the detention center because he wanted to confirm that the immigrants and refugees -- especially the children -- were being treated humanely.
I spoke with Zak Ringelstein about this immigration crisis, what he experienced in McAllen, the health of American democracy under Donald Trump and why the American people must help our fellow human beings who are being made to suffer if this country's democracy is to be saved. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
You are running as a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Maine. You are obviously busy with the campaign. But you were so moved by what you saw happening at the U.S.-Mexico border that you decided to travel 2,000 miles to visit one of the detention centers in Texas. Why did you make that decision?
I was actually in the middle of a 16-county tour across Maine. We were only on our sixth day. As the full scope of Trump's plan and its impact on immigrants and refugees came into focus, I felt like if I didn’t go down to the border, to Texas specifically, then I was not being the candidate that I would like to see in office.
I am also a dad with a three-month-old and a two-year-old child. I started my career teaching in Mexican immigrant communities; I taught in Arizona when Joe Arpaio [the former Phoenix sheriff] was running those prison camps. There I was teaching incredible kids from incredible families who had to leave their community and who obviously experienced a lot of trauma because of the policies of SB 1070. [That refers to Arizona's "show your papers" law.]
I am called to stand up against oppression in this country. I also felt it was my duty to show that Americans are good. I think the world needs to see that just because Trump is running an authoritarian regime, Americans individually are not going to put up with this. We need to do good things. I also felt called to bring more light to the issue. I think a lot of people actually don’t even know where this detention center in Texas is. We helped to shine a spotlight on it. The next day there were protests outside and people up in arms trying to block the entrance. We need to continue to keep the pressure on. We cannot let this be normalized. If that happens, then we as a country and people are lost.
Let's anticipate two obvious objections from Trump and his allies. They will say that migrants shouldn't bring their children or infants to the border, and what happens is their fault. Trump and various right-wing commentators have also said that people like you who care about these families and kids are being dishonest, faking empathy in order to make Trump look bad and win votes. What's your response?
I say that historically, in order to get through the worst of American history -- slavery, segregation, the cruelty towards Native Americans with genocide and land theft -- civil disobedience was necessary. We have needed people who are willing to put themselves in harm's way. I think a sad reality of this Trump administration is that he is a master manipulator who knows how to create drama in order to get his way. We need to figure out how to stop him. We need to join arms and say no. We are not going to live in this America, and I think the vast majority of Americans are actually at risk from what Trump represents. There is a leadership crisis in this country.
I agree that there is lack of moral leadership on a national level. There were "good Germans" who supported Hitler and the Nazis or at least did nothing to stop them. Future generations will look back with dismay on Trump's supporters and those other Americans who stood idly by in this moment. They are the "good Americans."
We know the history of fascism, we know the history of genocide and we know the history of authoritarianism in this world. As an American patriot who loves my country I am moved to action. We need to do something big or else this horrible situation is going to continue. It can continue beyond two terms, and that’s what truly frightening.
You said something very important there: Patriotism. Republicans have been great at branding themselves as patriots and wrapping themselves in the flag. But the Republican Party does not have a monopoly on patriotism and love of country. They certainly don't have a right to call themselves patriots with Donald Trump as president. What does patriotism mean to you?
Patriotism means standing up for real liberty and justice for all. It’s so sad when these terms can be manipulated for profit and power. I was a public school teacher. I have lived in East Africa. I started a company and sold it. I have been invited to the White House. I have sat at boardroom tables at big companies. I have learned that the working class and the poor are on the menu. Every few generations there is an event or experience that defines the country for decades to come. I think Trump's election and presidency are our moment.
How did you find the detention center in Texas? That was an issue, am I right?
When we got down there last week, we were given an address that was incorrect. It is the address where most people think the facility is located. But it is not. That is the border patrol. We wanted to find out where the real ground zero was -- where children were being taken from their parents and processed to be sent to Trump's internment camps. You can see from the videos that I shared on Facebook that there was a huge flood, and cars were literally stranded in the middle of the road. It was like there was a moat around this facility. It was so dystopian. Fortunately, we had a truck.
The intention was to bring toys to the children. We were also bringing water, books and blankets. So we brought a whole truck bed full of supplies. We had to get them inside the facility and see if the guards refused. We were very respectful, we were peaceful. We wanted to stand our ground and ask for two things. We said we wanted to be able to deliver the supplies. We also wanted to see what was inside the facility, and we wanted to know what the plan was to reunite the families. They were very clearly motivated to arrest me. They kept saying there was a number you can call. I asked,"Can you coordinate a visit?" Basically as soon as the news media started arriving, they arrested me.
Were these private security guards?
I was arrested by the local cops. On the video, you will see a border patrol van. I actually was transferred from the local court in a van that was very similar. They pack folks into these vehicles. A man pulls up driving the van and I said to him, "Who do you have in there?" He said, "You are blocking the way. I have prisoners in here.” I said, "Are there children in there?" and he refused to answer the question. So my assumption was that it was a van full of refugee or migrant families who were in the back. That gave me the courage to continue what I was doing because I was literally blocking a van full of families being brought to prison.
The way that these ICE enforcers and Border Patrol officers behave is frightening. The audio and video of the crying children and the callousness shown towards them strikes many people as barbaric. What type of human being would want to take that kind of job? What does it say about their values?
I asked a pretty high ranking Border Patrol official if she had children. She said, "Yes, I have five." I said, "Would you want them to live in a prison?" She said, "Well, if they break the law I would." That was her response. I said that these children didn’t break the law. They are refugees who are fleeing war and drought and hunger. That is not breaking the law. They are seeking asylum. I taught in communities like this one in Texas, where families obviously don’t have lots of options.
I am sure there are personality types which are authoritarian and are attracted to jobs in law enforcement more than others. But I will say that the vast majority of officers who I encountered were of Mexican descent. You can’t always blame the person who literally is just trying to make it themselves. I don’t know what their career opportunities are like. To me this is less about the employees and a lot more about the people at the top, the Trump administration in particular and the forces who have created the policies in the last two decades, especially following 9/11 with the Patriot Act. We also need to take on all the companies and people who are profiting from the prison-industrial complex of which these camps are a part.
Then what happened at the detention center?
We ended up delivering everything that was left on our truck the next day to a Catholic charity. I was shocked because 150 families who had been granted asylum were there, and they literally had tracking devices on their ankles.
I was put in jail. My side note from the trip, which I haven’t talked much about, is the unbelievable injustice that I saw in the prison system and how America has basically jailed a whole class of people who are dealing with mental health issues, as opposed to actually trying to support people. Having worked in public schools, I would say without hesitation that there is a lower prisoner-to-prison personnel ratio than there is student-to-teacher ratio. That speaks to a cultural sickness and huge spending on jails and prisons compared to public schools.
When you saw Donald Trump pardon and embrace Joe Arpaio -- a man whose cruelty in Arizona you have personally witnessed -- what were you thinking? Sheriff Arpaio is a man who actually bragged about running his own "concentration camp."
I don’t even have the exact words. It is absolutely disgusting and authoritarian and inhumane, and I would go as far as to say evil. I worked with families who were in a constant state of fear. These traumas last a lifetime. We’re literally developing people in this country, over 2,000 American kids who will have this memory of our country. This will have a huge negative impact on these kids' emotional, cognitive and physical development.
What would you say to Americans and others who are disgusted by these policies but still don't know what to do? Who are paralyzed or not yet moved to real action? How do you get them off the internet and engaged in real activism and direct action?
Everyone’s story is different. Everyone's ability to have the money to travel to these detention centers is going to vary widely. I encourage people to actively support civil disobedience and resistance against what is an authoritarian regime, because our country might depend on it. I would also encourage people to spend some effort trying to figure out which local charities and nonprofits are doing good work. I believe that a lot of the good work is happening locally. I would encourage people not to let this issue normalize or die. There is a lot of hysteria around Trump. It’s a strategy that he learned in business. It is a negotiation tactic. Trump goes up as high as he possibly can and then seems to compromise or back down to get the results that he wanted in the first place.
He tests boundaries to settle for what he really wants.
Let's say you win the Maine U.S. Senate race and go to Washington. You are then given a personal audience with Donald Trump. What would you tell him?
I would tell Donald Trump that you are a shame to my brother, who is a Navy helicopter pilot, and to every single American student I’ve ever taught and every family who actually believes in justice.
What would you tell your future Republican colleagues in the U.S. Congress who know that Trump is dangerous and what he is doing is wrong yet still support him?
I would say, history is watching. I understand how politics work and that you might lose votes and you might even lose the next election. How do you want your kids to remember you? Do you really want to be complicit in a regime that looks a whole lot like the authoritarian regimes that have committed various acts of violence against their people? People need to look in the mirror and figure out what they are objectively doing for our country. This Trump presidency and all who backed him will be looked on as a black mark in our country's history forever.