The Trump administration’s family-separation policy has brought the brutality of our immigration system into sharp relief in past weeks: Listening to the sob-choked cries of children begging for their parents has convinced many Americans that the humanitarian crisis on our southern border has been created and recently exacerbated by policy, and can, therefore, also be ended by policy. It’s an overdue awakening.
Trump’s openly anti-immigrant animosity—neatly captured in a recent tweet in favor of skirting due process and enacting summary deportations (“we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came,” Trump thumbed)—is, according to a new report from Freedom for Immigrants, being echoed in immigration detention centers across the country. For years, and across administrations both Republican and Democrat, immigrant rights groups have been documenting abuses at the border and in ICE detention facilities. But the system has been given a shot in the arm by Trump, Kris Kobach, Stephen Miller, and Jeff Sessions, to name a few anti-immigrant crusaders enabling and even directly encouraging abuse.
Unfortunately, Trump’s executive order last week to end family separation will do little to ease the state violence enacted upon migrants and their children. The order’s requirement to keep families together while in immigration custody runs up against a number of problems, not least of which is the Flores agreement, a court decree that prevents the federal government from keeping children in detention. For now, there seems to be no clear guidelines coming from Washington, and the confusion may be consigning children and their parents to prolonged, possibly indefinite detention. So what is it like inside those detention centers?
We know from reports from inside the centers that migrants will first pass days caged in freezing cold hieleras, or “coolers”—the Border Patrol’s overcrowded temporary holding facilities—where the lights blaze 24/7 and migrants are forced to sleep on the floor. They’ll receive substandard and even deadly medical care, and will have the constant threat of deportation hanging over them as they are thrust into an increasingly antagonistic and restrictive immigration-court system. They could spend months or even years behind bars, many without ever having committed or even having being charged with a crime. And, as detailed in a new report from immigrant advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants, the guards and detention center officials sometimes treat them inhumanely, hurling racist, Islamophobic, and homophobic nastiness at them. The report, “Persecuted in Immigration Detention: A National Report on Abuse Motivated by Hate,,” details the deeply unsettling, rampant hate spewed by ICE and ICE-contracted guards in immigration detention centers, documenting at least 800 complaints of abuse.
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The sheer number of these abuses shows that this hateful behavior toward migrants is not the result of a few individuals, but of a whole system of hate. As Christina Fialho, Freedom for Immigrants’ co–executive director told me via e-mail, “This isn’t something linked to a few bad apples. The whole system is rotten.”
Hate and bias-motivated abuse in the immigration-enforcement system has a long history. From the explicitly racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the explicitly racist 1924 Immigration Act (which set up a quota system limiting nonwhite immigration to the country), to the explicitly racist Operation Wetback of 1954, to homosexuality’s being a legal basis for exclusion until 1990, the United States has a sordid and extravagant record of de jure anti-immigrant racism and bias. Tracing the roots of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” crackdown and family separation policy ultimately leads back to the pro-lynching white-supremacist lawmakers who initially wrote the 1929 law criminalizing people for crossing the border.
The current wave of enmity was stirred up in June of 2015 when Trump descended the escalator and announced his presidential bid by calling Mexicans “criminals” and “rapists.” The steady drumbeat of acrimony from Trump and his sycophants since has enabled and unleashed spouts of hate in both citizens and governmental agencies alike. Though Freedom for Immigrant’s report focuses on immigration-detention centers, hate, of course, isn’t on the rise only behind bars. According to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, during the presidential campaign there was a 23.3 percent increase in incidents of hate and bias. In one horrific example, a Kansas man shot two Indian men, killing one of them, after screaming, “Get out of my country!”
As early as November 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported an immediate and sharp increase in hostility inside schools ostensibly spurred by the 2016 presidential campaign, including “verbal harassment, the use of slurs and derogatory language, and disturbing incidents involving swastikas, Nazi salutes and Confederate flags.”
As the Freedom for Immigrants report explains: “History has taught us about how governments around the world have used language as a tool of dehumanization in order to try to manipulate societies into believing that certain groups of people are inferior and deserving of abuse.” Historical examples include settler colonialists’ referring to the indigenous as savages, Nazis’ referring to Jews as “vermin,” Rwandan Hutus’s calling Tutsis “cockroaches,” or, currently, Trump’s insisting on calling MS-13 gang members “animals” or referring to African countries, Haiti, and El Salvador as “shitholes.”
Though the report focuses on ICE, it isn’t the only DHS agency committing disturbing abuses against immigrants. The ACLU recently reported that the US Border Patrol neglects and horribly mistreats unaccompanied minor children in their custody. One-quarter of 116 children in a 2014 study reported physical abuse, including sexual assault. In the same study, over half of the children reported suffering verbal abuse on behalf of Border Patrol agents, including death threats. A 2018 report, published by the Center for Law and Social Policy, summed up the long-lasting impact of incarcerating children, including “regressions in child development, suicide attempts, and high levels of anxiety and depression.”
The Freedom for Immigrants report documents a disturbing surge of hate and bias motivated by race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. Detained immigrants were racially abused by being called “monkey,” “porch monkey,” “King Kong,” “fucking blacks,” and “Haitian trash.” After a man asked for underwear and socks in the West Texas Detention Facility, the warden told him: “Shut your black ass up. You don’t deserve nothing. You belong at the back of that cage.”
Muslims, unsurprisingly, received the majority of the religious-based opprobrium, as they were denied halal food, were called “ragheads” and “camel jockeys,” not allowed to change their eating schedule in observance of Ramadan, and were sent to solitary confinement for praying. One Muslim woman was forced to take off her hijab in front of male guards; her hijab was confiscated.
LGBTQ detainees were also submitted to a host of targeted abuse, including homophobic slurs and frequent and inappropriate strip searches. LGBTQ detainees were refused visits from partners and were subject to death threats and physical abuse. Gay men I’ve profiled in previous stories published in The Nation described heinous misconduct, including being denied necessary medical treatment, thrown into prolonged solitary confinement, forbidden to work, and submitted to onslaughts of homophobic slurs. Transgender inmates, who suffer perhaps more than anyone else in immigration detention, have been sent to solitary confinement for their “protection” and have been detained in detention centers for the wrong gender. Roxanna Hernández, a transgender woman, recently died after spending five days in a Border Patrol hielera, where she suffered from pneumonia, dehydration, and HIV-related complications.
According to the report, one gay man reported not being let out of his cell and being forced to take a shower in front of male officers. Officers would not let him speak with other people, and medical staff allegedly told him that God did not love him because he was gay. Another woman, a member of Freedom for Immigrants’ leadership council who was formerly detained in an ICE facility in Virginia, wrote, “In detention I was made to feel like a worm, like I was worth nothing.”
Detainees suffering from mental-health issues were thrown in solitary, refused access to showers, and called “crazy” and “mentally retarded.”
I asked Freedom for Immigrants’ Fialho if any of the filed complaints led to disciplinary action or the firing of any ICE officers or prison guards, and she knew of none that had, adding, “This sends the message that they can continue to repeat their toxic behavior without any consequences.”
An ICE spokesperson responded to The Nation that the agency has “zero tolerance for all forms of abuse…and every allegation of misconduct is taken seriously.” They also maintained that “all senior field officers take LGBTI sensitivity training” and that “ICE has religious services coordinators in each of our facilities, and we actively monitor detainee disability accommodations consistent with federal law and agency policy.”
Short of abolishing immigration detention in the United States, Freedom for Immigrants offered recommendations to halt the abuse, including demanding a moratorium on further construction of immigration-detention centers, increased power and access to DHS’s Office of Inspector General and states’ attorneys general, the firing of abusive guards and officers, and participation in the FBI’s hate-crime program, a voluntary program meant to track and investigate prejudicial crimes that many local police and federal agencies opt out of.
“The public needs to understand the extent to which immigrants suffer constant emotional, and sometimes, physical, abuse, all stemming from hate and bias,” Fialho told me.
Trump’s recent executive order to halt family separation, rather than providing a strategy to reunite the families already separated, is consigning them to further and prolonged detention under the rule of an army of guards and officers who have exhibited abhorrent behavior. Meanwhile, the administration has made a call to add 15,000 more beds for immigration detention. The United States’ splenetic immigration-enforcement regime continues its depraved legacy under Trump, but with a level of animosity not seen in decades. As much of the nation, and even much of the world, has in recent weeks turned its attention to the inhumanity of imprisoning children and asylum seekers, there remain, according to DHS’s own calculations, an average of over 51,379 migrants in detention every day. Every one of them (whether adult or child), even as they suffer confinement and, potentially, physical abuse, is also a target for the rising wave of vitriol.