Those masochistic enough to read the news on Christmas Day were greeted with two stories of how Donald Trump's casual sadism affects even small children.
The first was more harmless, and actually kind of funny. During the Christmas Eve presidential tradition of taking calls about Santa from children, Trump, ever the troll, taunted a little girl by asking if she believed in Santa, "Cause at seven, it's marginal, right?" The joke, far cleverer than the simple-minded pandering he offers his adult supporters, apparently flew over the child's head.
The second incident, however, was a grim reminder that Trump's endless well of sadism is not funny at all. Shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve, eight-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez died in the custody of the Border Patrol, after he and his father were taken into custody a few miles outside El Paso, Texas. Earlier this month, seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died under similar circumstances, after crossing the border in New Mexico. Her body was laid to rest on Christmas Day in Guatemala, a country she, like Alonzo-Gomez, had been trying to escape from.
The timing of the death is evocative. As incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reminded her Twitter followers, the Christmas story is one of Jesus' nascent life being imperiled because of the inhospitable attitudes his travel-weary parents encountered. Indeed, along the border in the days before Alonzo-Gomez died, people will have participated in the annual tradition of the posada, a Mexican caroling tradition meant to invoke Joseph and Mary's attempts to find shelter during her labor.
As with Jakelin Caal Maquin, there will likely be a round of finger-pointing over the particulars of Felix Alonzo-Gomez's death and whether or not the father or Border Patrol officials did enough to monitor the boy's wellbeing. Already, Customs and Border Protection is announcing protocol changes, issuing a statement on Tuesday that "secondary medical checks" will be performed on children in custody, instead of relying on parents — many of whom may have language barriers with government officials — to report on their children's health. (Some people from native communities Guatemala and other Central American countries may speak Spanish poorly, let alone English.)
Increased vigilance is of course a good thing, especially as many of these kids turning themselves into Border Patrol have endured a harsh journey for hundreds or even thousands of miles, but it's not enough. The larger problem, one that likely contributed to these children's deaths, goes all the way to the White House and Trump's sadistic insistence on trying to stop refugees from applying for political asylum in a safe, legal and humane manner.
"The Administration’s policy of turning people away from legal ports of entry, otherwise known as metering, is putting families and children in great danger," Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, who will be the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Congress in January, wrote in a statement released on Christmas.
The details of Alonzo-Gomez's death are scant, but it's a safe bet — as it was with Caal Maquin's death — that the metering policy Castro references is a factor.
As Vox immigration reporter Dara Lind wrote in response to Caal Maquin's death, "For the past several months, the Trump administration has been routinely turning asylum seekers away from ports of entry and telling them to wait," which is called "metering." With "the safest crossings clogged up," many families choose remote desert or wilderness crossings instead, putting them in danger of dehydration, heatstroke, hypothermia and other grave health risks.
Alonzo-Gomez and his family appear to have crossed just a few miles away from a legal port of entry in El Paso. The ACLU and Mexican government are claiming that the number of people waiting for entry in Ciudad Juárez, across the river from El Paso, has grown to 450, due to the artificial obstacles the Trump administration has thrown up. These refugees are enduring a number of indignities — including the eerie practice that has recently emerged of writing numbers on their arms to keep track of them — and forced to stay in overcrowded shelters.
This situation will likely get worse, as the Trump administration is rolling out a new policy of forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their applications are considered, instead of allowing them to live in the United States during this time, as has been the policy in the recent past.
It's clear that the administration hopes to make the situation so miserable for asylum seekers that many will simply give up and go home. But what's happening instead is that people are leaving the urban areas and legal ports of entry and crossing the border in remote areas, where government agents are unlikely to stop them, but where they are also many miles away from shelter and medical care. No matter how many medical checks border officials may offer once families turn themselves in after they cross the border, forcing them to make that journey in the first place will only lead to more grave illness and more death.
It's frankly chilling, the way that the Trump administration is using cold bureaucratic language to evade both U.S. law and international commitments to take in refugees and allow them to apply for political asylum. Customs and Border Protection claims that "metering" is necessary simply in terms of resource allocation, but these moves cannot be separated from the larger context of Trump's overt racism, and his frequent invocation of white nationalist fear-mongering about immigration and racial diversity. Nor can this policy be separated from the multitude of moves the administration has made to remove as many nonwhite immigrants as possible, including its efforts to end legal residency status for hundreds of thousands of refugees currently living in the U.S.
To be more blunt about it, after Trump complained to his staff about "people from shithole countries coming here," his administration is using as much legalistic red tape as possible to help shut that down. As a result, people are dying, including children.
To be sure, there are systemic issues with border control and immigration that predate Trump, and those issues helped created the context in which this exploitation of bureaucracy could happen in the first place. Hopefully, the current horrors will shed more light on this problem and cause the next administration to move towards reforming Customs and Border Protection into a more humane institution, instead of simply accepting the status quo, as the Obama administration largely did.
Still, there's no doubt that Trump's personal racism and his embrace of racist paranoia about immigration is making the situation on the border dramatically worse. There's real reason for concern that he will only escalate things from here.
Fox News, despite its usual sycophantic attitude toward Trump, has shown a willingness recently to criticize our insecure and narcissistic president for even the slightest sign of backing down on his hardline anti-immigration attitudes. That may be the biggest reason he shut down the government in an effort to blackmail Congress into funding a border wall. It also suggests he will not back down on penalizing asylum-seekers, no matter how many children die.