Torture and abuse at the southern border

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In El Paso, the Border Patrol is throwing away all the personal belongings that migrants carried with them for thousands of miles.
Courtesy OIG

It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since I last crossed the U.S.-Mexican border illegally and spent a few days making my way through the chest-high brush of the Laguna Mountains east of San Diego. Unlike the other migrants I encountered on my journey for journalism’s sake, I had nothing to fear if caught by Border Patrol agents. But looking back now, it’s astonishing how much crossing the southern border has changed. 

I want to say it’s harder now, but it has always been hard, at least since Bill Clinton first started building the border fence back in the 1990s. The whole reason I was in Southern California in 2000 was to investigate the astronomical rise in the deaths of people crossing the border as a result of the fence, which back then started a few yards out in the Pacific Ocean and ran east to the edge of the Laguna Mountains. 

The border fence’s actual purpose then was to make illegal border crossing less visible by moving it from San Diego’s beaches and neighborhoods to the rural lands to the east where it wasn’t so obvious and therefore less politically damaging. Clinton’s version of “the Wall,” albeit short, forced migrants onto new, more dangerous immigration routes through the rugged Laguna Mountains and the Sonoran Desert. As a result, deaths due to exposure while crossing the border quadrupled from 500 a year to nearly 2,000. But statistically speaking, the only men, women and children Clinton’s barrier deterred from crossing into the U.S. were the 1,500 extra folks who died trying to get here because of that damned fence. So, it’s wrong to say it’s harder now, just crueler. 

The biggest difference I can see currently is the way we treat those trying to enter our country both illegally and even legally via the asylum process. Two decades ago Border Patrol agents rarely carried guns. They’d just round up migrants by telling them to stop and then haul them back to the border where they were returned to the Mexican side to try again the next day. 

Sure, you can argue this was an ineffective policy as far as keeping people from coming here, but that was never really the goal. Past administrations understood we need migrant labor and that its impact on agriculture alone subsidizes our entire economy. It’s estimated a single head of lettuce would cost more than $7 if not for undocumented laborers. Historically, our government also understood that the hundreds of millions of dollars being sent back to Mexico’s poorest citizens from family members working in the U.S. creates political stability for our neighbor to the south. Several studies have warned that cutting off this flow of cash would likely result in a peasant revolution that would risk the creation of a communist Mexico on our southern border. In short, there were a lot of common-sense reasons for having a national border policy that was intentionally porous. And it made for a kinder, gentler Border Patrol as a result.

Having spent weeks riding along in the Border Patrol’s white broncos on numerous occasions 20 years ago, I can attest that the agents I met at that time considered helping migrants to at least survive their attmpeted crossing was a big part of their job. When unexpected snowstorms hit the Lagunas or weaker, slower migrants got left behind by their guides in the desert, it was the Border Patrol agents who worked to find them before it was too late. 

They, unlike their modern counterparts, didn’t waste their time dumping the barrels of water or confiscating the warm clothing good Samaritans left along the migrant paths to save lives. I didn’t meet anyone back then who thought death was an effective deterrent or a fair price to pay for someone trying to come to this country for a better life.

But that was then. Now days it’s hard to know where to point the finger of guilt when it comes to the cruel treatment of migrants. It seems like everyone from rank and file Border Patrol agents to politicians right on up to the millions of U.S. citizens who say they support what’s being done at the border in their name are to blame for the atrocities that are now being committed by our country against these defenseless migrants. 

And make no mistake, these are atrocities, not some form of law enforcement or justice.

There’s a new report out from the  Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and it’s one that every American needs to read. And I hope it makes you feel as sick and embarrassed as it made me.

The first thing that hit me when reading it was the dehumanizing titles we have given to these people from south of our border. The report transforms children into “unaccompanied alien children.” Families become “units.” This moniker tweaking is no small thing. It’s how we have always coped with the horrors of war. That’s to say it’s easier to justify abusing, torturing and killing someone when we turn them into “Gooks,” “Krauts,” “Japs,” “Ragheads” or anything other than the men, women, children, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters they are, people who just happen to have been born in another country. 

It’s now clear that this administration has declared a war of sorts on the families and individuals crossing our southern border — hence our need to transform needy migrants seeking refuge and opportunity into illegals, units, aliens, rapists, gang members and drug dealers. Otherwise it would be far more difficult to do the hideous things the OIG report says we are doing — like cramming 155 people into a hot cell made to hold 35 people tops. Making alien units survive in standing room only cages with a single toilet seems more acceptable somehow than the same mistreatment would be for men and women just like us. It is truly government-authored wartime propaganda.


Migrant women are being held in cells so overcrowded they can’t lay down to sleep. And they are forced to wear the same soiled clothes for weeks at a time in some cases.
Photo courtesy of OIG

 At just one Border Patrol facility in El Paso, the OIG found a cell with a maximum capacity of 12 holding 76 people. Another cell built for 8 was housing 41. During a surprise inspection on May 8, the OIG found 900 migrants in a facility with a maximum capacity of 125. Inspectors reported seeing people standing on the cell toilets on multiple occasions in an effort to get enough air to breath above the shoulder-to-shoulder crowding that filled the cell. Inspectors found that women in detention had become overwhelmed by being forced to wear terribly soiled clothes for weeks at a time with no access to anything clean to put on. 

One reason for this, according to the report; all the personal belongings of those being held, including suitcases full of clothes they had carried from their home countries to the border, had been taken from them by Border Patrol and thrown away in dumpsters. Border Patrol even threw away the stuffed toys migrant children had clung to for thousands of miles as they walked toward what they thought would be their new life. 

Healthy people begged the OIG inspectors to let them sit in the halls away from the sick people who had been placed in their cells, exposing everyone to who knows what from who knows where. Detainees complained to inspectors the temperature in their cells was suffocating and there was no space for anyone to lay down to sleep. 

Can you imagine trying to sleep standing up or at best sitting shoulder to shoulder for days or even weeks at a time — all the while wondering if your loved ones are OK or being subjected to a similar fate? We now know children have been made to spend the night sitting in vans — some being stuck in vehicles for up to 39 hours. At Border Patrol holding facilities, unaccompanied children are being forced to sleep directly on concrete slabs. No human being should ever be forced to experience such conditions or bear such memories.  

OIG inspectors warn that due to this inhumane treatment it is only a matter of time until a violent eruption occurs at one of these facilities. People simply cannot be expected to exist calmly under such conditions, especially people who have committed no crime, coming to the U.S. legally to seek asylum.

For its part, the Border Patrol claims that the long-term internment of these refugees, many from Central American countries torn apart by extreme poverty, gang violence and government corruption, is the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security. Border Patrol agents told the OIG that they call and request placement for their overflow of detainees several times a day. But Homeland Security simply tells them they have no room.

This is what happens when the greatest nation on Earth is being guided by the most inept administration in possibly its entire history.

Make no mistake: What is transpiring at the border is nothing short of torture.

It is rooted in racism and it is wrong legally and morally.

Can you imagine the United States putting thousands of Australian, British, Norwegian and Irish immigrants into such conditions? Would our government ever take white children from their parents and lock them in cages, quite possibly causing some families to become separated forever and even causing some of those children to die alone? Can you honestly envision that at any point in this century we would cage white families in this way, intentionally packing sick people along with the healthy into hot, literally standing-room-only cells without enough air to breath? Cages where a hundred people share one toilet with no privacy? Cells where there is no way to lay down to sleep and people are forced to wear soiled clothing for days even weeks at a time? And would we ever do this to white families knowing that they had not committed a single crime? 

I can’t imagine that, and I doubt you can either because it would never happen. But that is exactly what our government is doing in our name at the southern border — to brown people — at this very moment. And we are letting it happen because we have allowed government and conservative media propaganda to cause us to view these people as subhuman, as aliens, illegals, rapists, drug dealers and MS-13 members. 

How else can you explain why the majority of the citizens in this country are willing to just sit back in silence and allow these people to be intentionally tortured? Oh, maybe we occasionally declare what a shame it is or say how sorry we are for those poor families, but we stop short of getting in our cars, driving south and demanding that the torture, abuse and deaths be stopped. 

We should be descending on Washington, forcing Congress to take immediate action to end these conditions. And we should be holding the people in charge of this inhumane system of torture accountable, demanding those responsible be prosecuted for their actions, including manslaughter when people die.

That’s what we should be doing. 

Focusing on the 2020 election as a solution is an impotent and irresponsible approach to the current crises of intentional abuse unfolding at this very moment.

I’m not naïve. I understand this is a complicated issue. In the past nine months, 98,052 people have been apprehended illegally crossing the border or turning themselves in for asylum in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector alone. That’s compared to just 13,646 for the same period a year earlier. 

But unlike what politicians so often claim, we don’t have to choose between open borders and torture. We are the world’s wealthiest nation. We take in trillions of dollars in tax revenue every year. Donald Trump spends half his weekends golfing at his Mar-a-Lago property in Florida and it costs us $3.4 million every weekend he spends down there. If we can find tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars for the president’s golf outings then we can surely find the money to create an immigration system capable of properly and humanely handling all the people who want to come here to add their success story to our nation’s rich history of immigrant contributions. 

And until that system is in place, we have no choice but to let innocent asylum seekers — people who came here legally — roam freely in our country until they have a lawful hearing on their status. That is what our laws call for. That is what everyone who has even a small grasp of what this nation stands for should be calling for.

Breaking up families and otherwise torturing innocent and vulnerable people in an effort to dissuade others from coming here is as un-American an act as I have ever witnessed in my lifetime. It makes a mockery of American exceptionalism and it is an embarrassing stain on our nation that history can never remove. Democracy cannot exist let alone flourish in a country that no longer believes in equality and freedom for all. We are watching the death of the great American experiment, and ironically, it’s being killed by people who hide their hate and bigotry behind our nation’s flag and other trappings of patriotism. 

We didn’t spill the blood of our brave soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago so that one day, we too could become a nation that tortures innocent families because of their race. 

We have to be better than that.