Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Grimm’s fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. Terrified by cruel conditions at home, the brother and sister flee, winding their way, hungry and scared, through unknown woods. There, they encounter an old woman who lures them in with promises of safety. Instead, she locks one of them in a cage and turns the other into a servant, as she prepares to devour them both.
Written in nineteenth-century Germany, it should resonate eerily in today’s America. In place of Hansel and Gretel, we would, of course, have to focus on girls and boys by the hundreds fleeing cruelty and hunger in Central America, believing that they will find a better life in the United States, only to be thrown into cages by forces far more powerful and agents much crueler than that wicked old woman. In the story, there are no politics; there is only good and bad, right and wrong.
Rather than, as in that fairy tale, register the suffering involved in the captivity and punishment of those children at the U.S.-Mexican border, the administration has chosen a full-bore defense of its policies and so has taken a giant step in a larger mission: redefining (or more precisely trying to abolish) the very idea of human rights as a part of the country’s identity.
This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left no doubt: the reality of those children locked in cages, deprived of the most basic needs, and brazenly abused by the administration he works for has been an essential part of the Trump team’s determination to abandon human rights more generally. That willingness to leave children unprotected is part of a far larger message, not merely an unfortunate byproduct of ill-thought out and clumsy actions by an overwhelmed border police force.
Children in detention camps
The story of the children at the border is indeed gruesome. The United States has long had migrants pushing at its southern border, often in larger numbers than at present. In fact, since the 1980s, the numbers crossing that border exceeded one million in 19 different years. While the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to estimate that current immigration rates are on track to exceed one million by September, many other experts don’t think it will even happen this year.
What’s genuinely new with the current border crossings is the number of children among the migrants. According to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan’s sobering recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the presence of such children has risen 72% in recent years. Some even come “unaccompanied.” Others belong to migrant families. And while last month the government officially stopped its cruel policy of separating families, leaving many of those children (even toddlers and babies) alone in custody, Vox reports that “at any given time, for the past several weeks, more than 2,000 children have been held in the custody of U.S. Border Patrol without their parents.”
The conditions in the camps, strewn along the U.S. borderlands from Arizona to Texas, are shameful and fall most harshly on those very children. A recent Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report, issued in redacted form just days before the July 4th holiday celebrating the birth of this country as a beacon of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” described the staggering squalor and danger at such confinement facilities. There, children were often deprived of changes of clothes, beds, hot meals, toothbrushes, soap, showers, even adequate medical attention. Other eyewitness accounts have provided graphic details on the nature and scale of the deprivation, showing us children in soiled diapers, living with the stench of urine, sleeping on concrete floors, many weeping. On the somewhat more civilized floor of the Senate, members were told of children sleeping outside, exposed to the elements, and of the spoiled food at the camps.
Add to this the emotional toll that family separations have wrought on thousands of young people, as a new report issued by the House of Representatives Oversight Committee reveals and as others have documented. An El Paso immigration lawyer visiting one facility, for instance, described seeing a young boy who had scratched his own face until it bled. There are first-hand accounts by visitors to the camps of children trying to choke themselves with the lanyards from their own identification cards and others who dreamed about escaping by jumping out of windows high above the ground.
No wonder at least seven children have died while in such circumstances and many more are suffering from lice, scabies, chickenpox and other afflictions. Yet when doctors from the American Association of Pediatricians traveled to the camps to offer their help, their services were refused. Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, herself a pediatrician, has labeledthe situation of the migrants “appalling” and noted that “several U.N. human rights bodies have found that the detention of migrant children may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that is prohibited by international law.” Others have been less circumspect, explicitly comparing the treatment of the children to torture.
It’s hard not to assume that, however overwhelmed CBP may be, at least some of this treatment is intentional. Why else turn away doctors offering help or refuse supplies of donated aid sent by worried citizens? Why arrest a humanitarian aid volunteer who gave food and water to two ill and desperate undocumented Central American migrants and tried to get them medical help? The administration acknowledges that the overall situation is dire, but its officials on the spot have basically thrown up their hands, complaining that they have been “overwhelmed” by the situation they created, are “not trained to separate children,” and are powerless to address the problem of scarce resources.
While those on the ground have claimed helplessness in the face of the challenge, the rest of the administration refuses even to admit to the appalling conditions. (“They are run beautifully,” said President Trump of the border facilities, blaming the Democrats for any problems there.) Instead, top officials have repeatedly called the disgracefully unacceptable acceptable. Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who bore responsibility for creating much of the mess, assured Congress that the children were “well taken care of,” claiming that “we have the highest standards.” Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions echoed her words. “The children,” he insisted, “are well cared for. In fact, they get better care than a lot of American kids do.”
In court, Department of Justice lawyer Sarah Fabian refused to admit that the absence of soap, a toothbrush, a bed, and sleep constituted unsafe and unsanitary conditions, the legal standards applying to the detention of migrant children. The U.S. Border Patrol chief for the El Paso region callously remarked, “Twenty years ago, we were lucky if we had juice and crackers for those in custody. Now, our stations are looking more like Walmarts, with diapers and baby formula and all kinds of things, like food and snacks." Vice President Mike Pence highlighted the refusal to acknowledge reality recently by calling the two camps he visited, neither solely for children, but one housing families, examples of “compassionate care... care that every American would be proud of.”
Really? In whose world are filth, disease, and persistent emotional cruelty acceptable? In what America is the brutal incarceration of children not a violation of founding principles? In what America is rejecting the advances in protections that have been a hallmark of U.S. and international policy since the Second World War standard operating procedure? Since when do American officials just throw up their hands and declare defeat (as a kind of victory of cruelty) rather than muster their best talents, energies, and resources to confront such a problem? The answer, of course, is in Donald Trump’s America. And don’t for a moment think that this is just a matter of the piling up of unintended consequences. It’s not.
A declaration of inhuman rights
Recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered some insights into the mindset of such an administration when it comes to the country’s longstanding embrace of the very idea of human rights. Soon after July 4th, he announced the creation of a new Commission on Unalienable Rights at the State Department. Its purpose, he claimed, was to rethink the spread of human rights protections as a part of American foreign policy. The very idea of rights, Pompeo insisted, had spun out of control. “Human-rights advocacy has lost its bearings and become more of an industry than a moral compass,” he said, wagging his finger at 70 years of history. “‘Rights talk’ has become a constant element of our domestic political discourse, without any serious effort to distinguish what rights mean and where they come from.”
Rather than expand rights further, he explained, the country would do well to return to (his idea of) the context of the founding fathers and explore just what they really meant in their classic writings. Essential to his goal, experts suggested, was rolling back abortion rights. A remarkable number of the commission members were, in fact, known for their anti-abortion positions and this should have surprised no one, since the State Department had already withdrawn all health assistance from international organizations that offer abortion counseling and care. In doing so, it expanded what, in prior Republican administrations, were more modest restrictions on abortion-related care. Striking as such a global anti-abortion-rights position might be, however, Pompeo’s urge seems far grander. His goal is evidently to unilaterally reject the evolution of human rights that has prominently defined the country since the post-World War Two era, and that has been an essential piece of American democratic rhetoric since its founding.
To begin the process, Pompeo promptly misappropriated the very language of the Declaration of Independence to promote an agenda explicitly calling for the removal of rights. “My hope,” he announced, “is that the Commission on Unalienable Rights will ground our understanding of human rights in a manner that will both inform and better protect essential freedoms — and underscore how central these ideas are not only to Americans, but to all of humanity.” As the rest of his comments showed, he was invoking the freedom to deprive others, exclude others, and cause hardship for others. Placed alongside the border realities, it was a testament to the administration’s determination to erase rights from the nation’s identity. Putting a fine point on his goals, Pompeo added that, in his view, human rights and democracy were distinctly in opposition to each other. As he pungently put it, “Loose talk of ‘rights’ unmoors us from the principles of liberal democracy.”
Pompeo’s attempt to recast the founders’ intent in the context of today's cruelty may be the most full-throated articulation to date of what this administration has been up to. The ongoing mistreatment of children at the border, a story that has lasted for well over a year, suggests that the spirit of Pompeo’s Declaration of Inhuman Rights has long been on the agenda. He had one thing right, however: those border camps do seem to belong to another place and time, one that preceded the U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, another document he invoked, intending to reshape American adherence to it.
The new status quo
This is hardly the first time the Trump administration has revealed its cynicism over democracy. Redefining the very purpose of “liberal democracy,” as I wrote more than a year ago, had been part of its mission since the beginning. In its first 18 months, the administration removed the language of democracy from the mission statements of many of its departments, including the phrase “nation of immigrants” from that of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Still, after two and a half years of reorienting the executive branch of government away from equal protection under the law, the equal right to vote, and a respect for the very idea of welcoming immigrants, Pompeo’s “commission” may be the most brazen conceptual act yet when it comes to erasing the language of human rights from the country’s identity.
It’s in this still-developing context that the migrant children crisis should be understood. It should be seen as a graphic version of the insistence of this administration on changing the very meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the modern age. For Pompeo (as for his president), the evolution of the country towards more rights for more people is nothing but a mark of shame. How far back would he take us? To before the Civil War?
No wonder, on learning each day’s news from the border, it’s easy to feel we’ve entered a dismal fairy tale from an age of ogres and witches, where the forces of evil and ill will have taken charge and the prospect of saving helpless children seems as irretrievably long gone as those crumbs eaten by the birds following Hansel and Gretel on their grim journey into the witch’s lair. Attacking the most vulnerable among us — infants, toddlers, young children, teens — leaves little room for doubt. This administration is determined to undo the country’s commitment to human rights and so change its identity in a way that should concern us all.
Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and editor-in-chief of the CNS Soufan Group Morning Brief. She is the author and editor of many books, among them Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State and The Least Worst Place: Guantánamo’s First 100 Days. Julia Tedesco, Jonathan Ellison, and Andrew Steffan helped with research for this article.
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Copyright 2019 Karen J. Greenberg