Juliette Kayyem: The border crisis Trump left behind
Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah has said that “allowing unaccompanied minors to stay in the U.S. will yield a flood of unaccompanied minors,” calling it a “de facto ‘child separation policy.’” There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that allowing unaccompanied children to apply for asylum in the U.S. has resulted in families in Central America sending their kids to the U.S. But not only is allowing these children to stay and apply for asylum arguably the only option under American law, the alternative—simply turning unaccompanied children away at the border—is monstrous. Under crisis logic, any problem can be solved by an escalation of barbarism.
The crisis is not that these children—some 80 percent of whom, according to DHS, have relatives in the U.S.—are arriving and applying for asylum, which some of them will get and some of them won’t. They are children; they are not a threat to American sovereignty, security, or stability. The crisis is that the American system so frequently treats them like refuse.
Under American law, detainees are supposed to be held for no longer than 72 hours in Border Patrol facilities, which are not equipped for long-term detention. When the number of migrants arriving at the border rises significantly, those facilities are quickly overwhelmed, leading to the horrific conditions seen in recently published photographs. The immigration-detention system has grown rapidly in the past two decades, even as the number of apprehensions has gone down—the result of policy makers’ decision to invest in detention in a quixotic quest to “secure” 2,000 miles of territory without addressing the factors driving migration.
This quest has been bipartisan, but the prior administration pursued it to new levels of callousness. As one immigrant-rights advocate told me in 2019, “There were definitely parts of the Obama program that did similar—and, in fact, some of the same—things … But this all-encompassing skepticism of asylum seekers fleeing violence—justifying cruel treatment, justifying changes in the law, and justifying overcrowding to the point of unsafe and deadly conditions—[is] of a scale and a type that we haven’t seen before.”
Whether the Trump administration escalated inhumane conditions through malice, incompetence, or both, the former president himself saw the resultant squalor as an asset to his policies. “If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detention centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!” he tweeted in 2019.
In the 1980s, according to a joint report on immigration detention by the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the National Immigrant Justice Center, the U.S. immigration system held only about 2,000 people a day, on average—this was not an era of open borders, the vast majority of people attempting to cross the border were swiftly turned away. From 2000 to 2016, the average daily number of detainees rose from about 20,000 to 32,985, most of whom were held in facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Under the Trump administration, that number skyrocketed to an average of more than 50,000 people in 2019. “When CBP facilities are included,” the report noted, “the federal government has detained some 80,000 people at a time—far higher than the number detained in previous administrations.”