It’s tough to keep up with the daily barrage of atrocities at our southern border. That’s on purpose. We’re not meant to absorb the details, as though we’re tracking some benign policy debate. We’re meant to experience the feeling of crisis, driven by a vaguely defined threat that requires extreme action by an unchecked power.
So let’s just pause, here at the midway point of Donald Trump’s administration, and tally a portion of the damage done, just over the past six months, in the name of the supposed crisis at our southern border.
At this writing, we are four weeks into the longest shutdown of the federal government in our history. Hundreds of thousands of civil servants and their families are facing life-altering ordeals as they go without a paycheck. Basic functions ranging from airport security to small-business lending have been upended. Trash and human waste are piling up inside our national parks, to say nothing of the potentially irreversible damage being done by poachers and others roaming unmonitored in protected lands. But that’s just the past few weeks.
In December, 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonso and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquín died while in the custody of the US Border Patrol. (Imagine if we all repeated their names as often as we chant Donald Trump’s.) Their deaths revealed just how brutally our government greets migrants who come to us seeking the barest of help. Felipe had bounced between four holding facilities in six days. Migrants sleep on mats with foil Mylar blankets, in conditions that echo prison camps; some have called the holding facilities hieleras (“iceboxes”). People arriving to these conditions, after completing dangerous, months-long journeys, receive only cursory health screenings.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen responded to the news that little kids are dying in this kind of custody by declaring, “Our system has been pushed to a breaking point by those who seek open borders.” Let this grotesquely cynical statement sink in. The unnecessary deaths of two children in American custody are being used as evidence of a border crisis—one that our government actually manufactured itself by making the process of claiming asylum impossibly difficult. Apparently, whatever depravity the Trump administration dreams up is itself proof of the need for more depravity. It’s enough to leave Kafka tongue-tied.
But that gets us only as far back as the holidays.
The fall of 2018 was peppered with militaristic pageantry. Border Patrol agents rained tear gas down on hundreds of protesters in Tijuana after a group of frustrated migrants scaled the border fence from the Mexican side (which suggests the futility of a wall, but anyway…). Nearly 6,000 active-duty troops were forced to spend Thanksgiving camped out in the desert, part of a months-long deployment with no meaningful mission beyond creating B-roll for Fox News programming. The White House also made a show of authorizing the troops to use lethal force—presumably because, after blowing an estimated $483 million in various military deployments to the border this fiscal year, it’s hoping for better footage than a bunch of bored, homesick soldiers stringing concertina wire. A good crisis does demand strong images, after all; this administration learned at least that much from George W. Bush.
But still, we’re only as far back as late summer.
In June, a federal judge ordered the administration to reunite the thousands of migrant families it had ripped apart—again, in the name of a supposed crisis at the border. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which took custody of the migrant children as the Department of Homeland Security prosecuted their parents and guardians, identified 2,737 kids—including infants and toddlers—who had been separated from their families.
That alarming number is actually a vast undercount, however. Homeland Security had been separating families for a full year before the court order came down, according to a new federal audit, meaning that “thousands” more kids were sent to HHS than previously reported. “The total number is unknown,” an official from the HHS inspector general’s office told reporters earlier this month. “It is certainly more than 2,737.” Even worse, this problem is ongoing, in open violation of the June court order: The audit found at least 118 kids who have been separated from their families since the court told the administration to end the practice.
All of this human damage, in just the past six months.
And that’s before even considering our national moral erosion, as we begin to question the basic principles we so painfully came to agree upon in the course of the 20th century: that we reject a race-based system for parceling out visas; that we embrace family reunification as a legitimate reason to migrate to the United States; that we abide by the simple constitutional rule that if you’re born in America, you’re American. In the first two years of Trump’s presidency, the white-nationalist wing of American politics has reopened the fight over these principles, and it has done so by using a battle-tested strategy for introducing radical ideas to the mainstream: Orchestrate crisis.
So let us remember the stakes. This is not just a conservative administration. It does not represent the political pendulum swinging between neoliberal Democrats and warmongering Republicans. And its primary players have no real interest in the normal debates over whether, how, and at what size government should function—at least not beyond protecting their personal ability to profiteer. Instead, the Trump administration is a group of racist ideologues, intimately affiliated with an avowed and growing white-supremacist movement, whose primary political mission is to preserve a white majority in American citizenship. Their strategy is to create a feeling of constant crisis around brown immigrants so that they may offer extreme solutions to the supposed threat. Thus far, they have been enormously successful in their efforts.