This week, the Trump Administration declared that immigrant children can be detained indefinitely, and in conditions that can be described as concentration camps. We talk to Sasha Abramsky of The Nation
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.
This week, the Trump administration declared that immigrant children can be detained separate from their families indefinitely. And this comes after the administration argued in court to be able to detain children in conditions that can arguably be described as concentration camps, destroying the tenants of the two decades old Flores decision.
Here to talk with me today about what this means for the families and children of asylum seekers and immigrants, and what this means for this country is Sasha Abramsky. Sasha is a regular contributor to The Nation magazine where his article on this proposed rule change was recently published. He is the author of eight books, and the most recent one is called Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream. Welcome, Sasha. Thank you so much for joining me.
SASHA ABRAMSKY: Thanks for having me on.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So really quickly for people who don’t understand what this means and what this change is, what is the Flores decision and why is what the Trump administration did this week important in the history of immigration policy in the US?
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SASHA ABRAMSKY: Okay. So the Flores decision came out of a lawsuit more than 30 years ago in California when children fleeing from Central America, from armed conflict at the time, were being kept in really atrocious conditions and a number of immigration attorneys filed suit. A decade later at the end of the 1990s there was an agreement reached with the federal government, which basically set in place a few things. It set in place the kinds of conditions that kids could be kept in, so it mandated certain standards— access to education, to food, to safe bedding, and so on and so forth, but it also set time limits. It basically said, “Look, you want to hold these kids in the least restrictive environment for the least amount of time possible,” because there was an understanding that the longer you hold kids essentially in prison, the more you damage them. You damage them physically, you damaged them psychologically, and you actually can do long-term damage to that child, which is going to follow them for the rest of their life.
So the settlement agreement basically said, “All right, if you’re going to hold immigrant families in detention, you can only do it for a certain amount of time. Then you have to release them, you have to process them through the courts, and while they’re waiting for their asylum cases, they have to be in the community.” Trump’s administration right from the get-go has waged a war on immigrants— whether it’s DACA recipients, Temporary Protected Status recipients, whether it’s Muslims seeking visa’s to come into the country, whether it’s legal immigrants seeking access to public benefits. And now what they’re doing is trying to unilaterally rip up that Flora settlement and say, “Well look, we don’t believe that we should have to adhere to standards, and nor do we believe that there are time limits.” If they get away with it, what they’re going to be able to do is basically set up this archipelago of immigration detention camps.
You can call them internment camps, you can call them concentration camps, you can call them prisons. But the end result is that thousands upon thousands of kids will be able to be held indefinitely in these appalling conditions, while their asylum cases, while their immigration cases run their way through the courts. It’s extraordinary. What it means is America, which prides itself on being this open pluralist society, which has the Statue of Liberty as it’s national emblem, is now in the business of internment camps for children. I think anybody who cares morally about where this country’s going should just take a look at this and just be absolutely stunned by what is now being done in our names.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So didn’t the Trump administration declare a few weeks ago, or just a few days ago actually, that it would not issue flu vaccines to detained immigrants?
SASHA ABRAMSKY: That’s right. And that is dangerous for so many reasons. It’s dangerous because kids are particularly susceptible to a very deadly flu. It’s also dangerous because these camps, these prisons, are so overcrowded that they’re absolute petri dishes for disease. So when I was in Arizona reporting a story for The Nation Magazine before the summer, I was interviewing people who had been held in these facilities for days, sometimes weeks on end. And what they were telling me was that in some of these rooms that are 75 to 100, in some rooms even 150 people crowded together. They have no access to bedding. They sleep on concrete floors. Sometimes when there’s particular overcrowding, families have been moved outside to sleep outside in the desert, and they were doing that in winter. They’re doing it without access to clean and safe drinking water. They’re doing it without access to an adequate number of bathrooms.
I was told stories where 75 to 100 people had access to two bathrooms. And I was told stories where the only drinking water available was from dirty faucets right next to the toilets. There’s almost no medical care in these facilities. And the idea that you would cram human beings into these camps that resembled cattle cars, and that you would then make it even more likely that they would fall prey to whether it’s flu or any other infectious disease, and would then deny preventable vaccinations to stop them getting those illnesses— to me, that’s a crime.
I don’t know if it meets the legal definition of crime, but it’s doing something deliberately intended to put already poor, already scared, already vulnerable immigrants into harm’s way. And it could only be done by an administration which has spent three years dehumanizing immigrants, calling them invaders, calling them pests, calling them criminals, calling them rapists. And when you dehumanize entire groups of people, you make it that much easier to put them into conditions in which they are treated in a subhuman manner. And that’s what we’re witnessing today. The United States government is now in the business of denying children vaccines for preventable diseases.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And not only is this administration denying vaccines to children for preventable diseases, but didn’t the administration go to court earlier this year to argue that basic necessities that we take for granted— like soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste— were not necessary or were not legally considered necessary in detention facilities?
SASHA ABRAMSKY: They did. And this was, again, part of the Flores legislation. There was a case, there was a legal suit brought because they were depriving kids of adequate access to food. They were providing inedible food. They were providing dirty drinking water. They were denying them access to toothpaste, to soap, and to shampoo, and even to showers. And then, the DOJ attorneys somehow decided it was okay to go to court and argue that all of that was somehow acceptable under Flores. And not surprisingly, the judge said, “Absolutely not. You’re not meeting any legal standards if you’re denying kids food, you’re denying kids toothpaste, you’re denying kids soap, and so on.”
But I would say that any judge who comes up and listens to an attorney for the Department of Justice spouting this nonsense, any judge is going to be looking at this and thinking what on Earth is going on? When did the Department of Justice become so Orwellian? When did the attorneys who work for the Department of Justice decide that it was morally acceptable to go to court to argue that children didn’t need adequate supplies of food, didn’t need access to education, didn’t need access to outside exercise facilities, didn’t need access to personal hygiene? What kind of a country would send its top legal employees to argue that on behalf of the state?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now let’s – to be fair, and to draw a comparison, detention facilities existed in the United States in regard to immigration policy to hold people who were across the border “illegally” in the previous administration. What is the major difference between the way family and child detention was handled in previous administrations, and what’s the big difference in the way this administration is handling the situation?
SASHA ABRAMSKY: It’s a good question, and there are a few key differences. It’s absolutely true that previous administrations have had detention at the border, and previous administrations have argued against the Flores settlement. That’s absolutely true. The difference is that the previous administration tried to use detention sparingly. So the default understanding was— for families in particular, and for children in particular— there was something of an incentive to get those kids out of a confined incarceration setting because there was a recognition of the harm that was caused. The difference here is, this administration seems to revel in the harm that’s caused. They’re using it as this very, very crude deterrent. They’re trying to terrorize families. They made it abundantly clear. They made it abundantly clear with the family separation policy they tried to implement last year, that they were using the taking of children, that they were using the incarceration of children, that they were using up the breaking up of families not as a last resort immigration policy, but as a first resort deterrent.
They’ve essentially concluded that any and every impoverished immigrant, any and every impoverished asylum seeker, any and every would be refugee who is coming to this country because they believe in Emma Lazarus’s words on the Statue of Liberty, that all of those people are dangerous, that all of those people are enemies, and that all of those people are invaders. And they’re using the language of white nationalists. They’re using the exact same language that neo-Nazi groups, that white nationalist groups, that white supremacist groups, that Identitarian groups are using on their websites.
And we saw this absolutely scandalous event earlier this week when the Department of Justice sent out a daily news bulletin to immigration judges around the country quoting from a white nationalist website. Imagine that. The Department of Justice of the country that prides itself on being the greatest democracy on Earth, is sending immigration judges links to white nationalist websites. And I think this is the fundamental difference, that we now have a president who goes to campaign rallies and he insights crowds into nativist, racist, bigoted language that can only reverberate and hurt immigrants. That can only shred our sense of community and our sense of society. And he’s doing it quite deliberately. He’s not doing it incidentally.
So you asked the difference, and the difference is that this administration has made a decision that the more it demagogues on immigration, the more it demagogues on this idea that our borders are being besieged and that we’re being invaded, the more it demagogues on this, the more it can drive its base to the polls. And it’s a disgraceful policy decision because the impact is now being felt by hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of immigrants all around the country who on a daily basis now feel scared, feel terrorized, feel that the government no longer have their back. And that’s a horrifying situation that the United States government is making it abundantly clear that it doesn’t represent all Americans, that it only represents certain Americans.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So perhaps the question about whether we should call these detention centers concentration camps are not now – isn’t really a question in the minds of the people who are establishing these new rules to create these conditions, which under the technical definition of a concentration camp, that’s exactly what these are. The only question it seems to be in whether the American people and the rest of the world are, whether we are willing to call these places and these actions what they are, and what we’re going to do about them. So what do you have to say about that, Sasha?
SASHA ABRAMSKY: Well, I think whether we call them concentration camps—And they clearly are. They meet the definition of the original concentration camps that the British used against the Boer’s in South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century. They were camps designed to bring families into contained, controlled incarceration environments. Whether we call them concentration camps like that, or whether we call them internment camps like the camps that we used against Japanese Americans during World War II, whatever label we choose to affix on them, we’re clearly now in a moment where the top bureaucracies of the United States immigration system— the Customs Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and so on and so forth— are responding to essentially a policy agenda set by the nationalist Steve Miller.
And they’re responding to a policy agenda which views all immigration as bad, that increasingly fails to distinguish between legal and undocumented immigrants, that penalizes all immigrants financially for daring to come to this country. We see this with the new public chart regulations, that there’s this assumption that anybody who tries to come into this country to remake themselves, remake their families, give themselves a better future— that in doing so, they’re transgressing. That they are crossing some kind of boundary and therefore deserve punishment.
So to me it’s slightly irrelevant whether we call them concentration camps, internment camps, detention centers, prisons, cages for children. The end results the same. We’re doing things that we know are going to hurt young children who have come to America to escape poverty, to escape violence, to escaping [inaudible] gangs, into armed gangs in places like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. And they’ve come to America because America historically has been a land of welcome – been one of our proudest accomplishments as a nation, that we are strong enough to welcome and absorb immigrants and asylum seekers and refugees.
And since World War II we have admitted millions of refugees, and they have started businesses, they have made scientific discoveries and inventions. They have contributed immensely to this society. We are now locking out refugees, we’re locking out asylum seekers, and we’re putting people who do make it to the United States border to claim asylum, into these absolutely awful camps. And I think that anybody in the administration who participates in this, should be shamed for the rest of their lives for the action they are doing now.
And it should be made abundantly clear that when this awful administration’s over, they’re not going to get public service jobs again. And they’re not going to be welcomed in think tanks, and they’re not going to be welcomed in universities because the idea that they’re just doing politics as normal is absolutely wrong. There’s nothing normal about putting children into concentration camps. And I think that we as a society, you asked what’s at stake. What’s at stake is a battle for our soul – what kind of a people we are and what kind of actions we’re willing or not willing to stomach when carried out by this administration.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, Sasha Abramsky, thank you so much for your reporting. And we will absolutely continue to see just what kind of nation we will be in regard to this issue. Thank you for coming on today and speaking with me, clarifying what is really going on in these detention centers with these children.
SASHA ABRAMSKY: You’re very welcome. Thank you so much.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.