Are Children Being Kept in ‘Cages’ at the Border?

A semantic debate is raging over what to call the pens where migrant kids are being held after separation from their parents.

Kids lie on mats, some under foil sheets, on a floor in a detention-center pen.
Customs and Border Patrol via Reuters

It’s hard to think of something more tangible than a child incarcerated in a tent city or a former Walmart building—and yet as the story of families being separated at the border mushrooms, one of the central questions has been a semantic one: whether the migrant children are being kept in cages.

Here’s what no one disputes: When the children are separated from their parents, they’re sent to facilities where they are kept in chain-link pens they can’t leave. But are those cages? It depends on whom you ask.

For example, the Associated Press reported over the weekend: “Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing. One cage had 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets.”

The AP is an influential news source. Because most local outlets around the country can’t send reporters to the border, they end up relying on stories from the AP to deliver the news to their readers. In addition, the wire service studiously aims for impartiality in language and reporting, and outlets around the world often adopt the AP’s guidance on language and usage. For the AP to deem the enclosures “cages” means that language will spread.

Breitbart, the faithful servant of the Trump White House’s messaging line, is well aware of this. On Sunday, editor Joel B. Pollak wrote a post devoted to criticizing the AP’s word choice. “The AP’s choice of words is only the latest in what appears to be a series of politically-charged word choices by the wire service,” he said, and contrasted the AP dispatch with a story in the Los Angeles Times that described “chain-link fenced holding areas.” Of course, these descriptions are not mutually exclusive, and the Times’ description defines a cage. Yet Pollak insisted that the correct terminology is “chain-link partition.”

Before taking center stage on Sunday, this debate had been slowly building for weeks. Earlier this month, The Washington Post’s fact-checkers scolded Senator Jeff Merkley for saying children were kept in cages, only to earn a counter-rebuke from MSNBC reporter Jacob Soboroff, who tweeted, “I saw myself: there are kids, families and adults in cages, cells, kennels—whatever you call them. No question.”

The increasingly ontological cast of the debate continued Monday morning. Steve Doocy of Fox and Friends, the president’s favorite show, echoed Pollak’s line, saying that children weren’t being held in cages but that authorities had “built walls out of chain-link fences.” Meanwhile, CBS News’s Gayle King was reporting from the border, where she described “cages.” The Border Patrol, CBS reported, took issue with that description, not because they felt it was inaccurate, but because they were “very uncomfortable” with the implication that the children were being treated like animals.

The obvious counter to this is that being held in a cage with 20 other children and few comforts besides foil blankets is also very uncomfortable. But this is abuse of the language, too. Refusal to call a cage a cage merely because it makes someone uneasy—or, perhaps more importantly, because it is politically toxic—does not transform a cage into a “chain-link partition.”

The point is that these children are incarcerated.

The cages aren’t wholly new. During the Obama administration, unaccompanied immigrant children who arrived at the border were kept in them as well, as this tour by Representative Jim McGovern shows. Then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said unaccompanied minors would be deported, labeling the practice a deterrent. There was outcry at the time, especially from immigration groups, and the Obama White House was forced to stop detaining families by a court. What is different now is that the children being held are being forcibly separated from their parents at the border. So is the scale of the issue—the Washington Examiner reports that there could be 30,000 such children in custody by August.

This linguistic debate might seem like a distraction—and, in fact, it is. “If you’re arguing whether the children are in cages or windowless rooms, you’ve lost the plot,” the comedian Ziwe Fumodoh tweeted Sunday. But losing the plot as a matter of fact and morality and losing the political point are not the same. When the debate is focused on what to call the pens in which children separated from their families are being held, rather than the fact that children separated from their families are being held, it’s a victory for the Trump administration and its allies.

The “cage” fight is just one of a series of Orwellian deployments of language from the White House recently. On Sunday, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen railed against “misreporting by Members [of Congress], press & advocacy groups” and tweeted:

This is violence to the English language. The claim is that the policy is aimed at adults, not at children, but the effect is the same. In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the government would charge anyone entering the country illegally with a crime. Under the Flores agreement, a 1997 legal settlement, the federal government must hold children in the least restrictive setting possible. That means the government can’t imprison children alongside their parents.

The administration knew full well that the result would be separations. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said in May. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly also said in May that the goal was to dissuade unauthorized immigrants from entering. “The laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence,” he told NPR. “It could be a tough deterrent—would be a tough deterrent.”

Nielsen’s words are at odds with her colleagues’ in the administration. They’re even at odds with her own. By Monday, she was defending the same policy she claimed didn’t exist, saying in New Orleans, “It’s important to understand that these minors are very well taken care of. Don’t believe the press.”

President Trump, meanwhile, continues to claim that the separations are somehow Democrats’ fault, even though Democrats do not control either house of Congress, the separations began only last month, and his claim has been repeatedly debunked. Trump continues to insist that he dislikes the policy and continues to blame his opponents, even though he could reverse the policy himself.

In a similar vein, first lady Melania Trump issued a statement Sunday that garnered a lot of attention as a criticism of the policy.

“Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform,” a spokeswoman said. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”

This, too, plays games with the truth, suggesting that the reason for the policy is that both parties won’t simply come together to pass immigration reform. But the battle in Congress over reform right now is mostly within the Republican Party, as moderates, conservatives, and leadership in the House fight over how to proceed on immigration.

In theory, the falsehoods in these statements ought to be plain—the representations by Donald and Melania Trump and Nielsen are simply wrong, while Sessions and Kelly are more honest, if politically reckless, in their comments. But the contradictions among high-level officials don’t bother the White House, which aims to stir up confusion rather than debate an issue it’s likely to lose. Hence the Surrealist proposition of the moment: Ceci n’est pas une cage.