We’ve now had months of reports of inhumane and obscene conditions at migrant detention camps managed by the Trump administration along the U.S. border with Mexico. The myriad, sordid details are already part of a larger stain on America’s collective ethos; they will disfigure the country’s reputation for generations to come.
A report released on Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security’s independent monitor found that overcrowding or prolonged detention at five centers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley represented “an immediate risk to the health and safety” of detained migrants, and violated laws governing how detainees should be treated. DHS inspectors visited the facilities in June and found that adults were crammed into cells with only room to stand and that children weren’t given hot meals or showers.
Migrants forced to clean themselves with wet wipes or subsist on bologna sandwiches had developed constipation and other medical problems. They were so desperate to leave the detention centers, the report said, that when they saw inspectors they “banged on the cell windows, shouted, pressed notes to the window with their time in custody.” Detention camps meant to keep migrants for days while they awaited deportation or a transfer to longer-term facilities are now housing people for weeks on end.
The DHS report came on the heels of statements from several members of Congress (all Democrats), who toured facilities in Clint and El Paso, Texas, on Monday and described equally squalid conditions. Two of the lawmakers said Border Patrol agents had told detained migrant women that running water wasn’t available and that they should drink from toilets.
Last week, the Texas Tribune reported that while some migrants at a facility in Donna, Texas, described their treatment as humane, others held in camps in McAllen and Del Rio, Texas, weren’t allowed to bathe or brush their teeth. “They don’t have the humanitarian conditions for people to be there,” one migrant told the newspaper. “There were more than 200 of us in a single cage — seated on the floor, standing, however we could fit.” The same person said that “the stench inside overflowing toilets was so bad it made him gag and caused children to vomit.”
In late June, The New York Times reported that the Clint facility wasn’t providing migrants with toothbrushes, toothpaste or soap. “Children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met,” the Times wrote of the Clint camp. “Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants. Teenage mothers are wearing clothes stained with breast milk.”
Last year, after the Trump administration launched its “zero tolerance” policy aimed at discouraging migrants from crossing the southern border by charging them with crimes and separating children from their families or caregivers, the DHS wasn’t prepared to deal with the humanitarian crisis that ensued. The department, according to another of its own reports, lied about maintaining a nonexistent “central database” it claimed it was using to keep track of separated parents and children. U.S. Border Patrol agents didn’t tell migrant parents that they would be separated from their kids until after it happened, according to that DHS report.
Apprehensions of undocumented immigrants had been at a decadeslong low prior to Trump’s inauguration. According to the DHS report released Tuesday, 99,835 migrants were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley area between October 2017 and May 2018; the figure was 223,263 during the same period a year later. The Trump administration hasn’t been able to manage that massive jump and the detention facilities clearly can’t absorb such huge numbers of people.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”