Despite Trump fatigue, the horror of child detention breaks through our apathy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

President Trump has worn us down. The Mueller report — loaded with evidence that Trump obstructed justice and welcomed Russian interference in the 2016 campaign — bobs, floats, and then sinks beneath the surface. A credible accusation that he raped a woman several decades ago barely registers. Dangerous rhetoric that journalists are “the enemy of the people,” once shocking, is now little more than background noise.

Sometimes, though, the terrible reality of the Trump presidency breaks through, at least for a moment. Such is the case with the hundreds of migrant children being held at a border detention center in Clint, Texas, under conditions of shocking cruelty, according to a group of lawyers that visited the camp. The children are reported to be cold, hungry, and filthy. Many are sick.

Then, on Tuesday, the awful consequences of Trump’s policies were driven home in even more graphic detail, as news organizations published a photo of the bodies of a father and daughter from El Salvador who had drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States.

This time the public appears to be paying attention. No, not the way they did several weeks after Trump’s inauguration, when thousands of people turned out in Boston (and many more across the country) to protest the first iteration of his ban on Muslim immigrants. That was before Trump had had a chance to induce inaction through the sheer repetition of outrages. But the news media, at least, have shone a spotlight on the horrifying details coming out of Clint. Media interest is an imperfect measure of public interest, but to the extent that there is some correlation, the news appears to be breaking through. Some examples:

• From The New York Times: “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 lawyers said. Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants. Teenage mothers are wearing clothes stained with breast milk.”

• From The Associated Press: “A 2-year-old boy locked in detention wants to be held all the time. A few girls, ages 10 to 15, say they’ve been doing their best to feed and soothe the clingy toddler who was handed to them by a guard days ago. Lawyers warn that kids are taking care of kids, and there’s inadequate food, water and sanitation for the 250 infants, children and teens at the Border Patrol station.”

• From The New Yorker (quoting Warren Binford, one of the lawyers who visited Clint): “Many of the children reported sleeping on the concrete floor. They are being given army blankets, those wool-type blankets that are really harsh. Most of the children said they’re being given two blankets, one to put beneath them on the floor. Some of the children are describing just being given one blanket and having to decide whether to put it under them or over them, because there is air-conditioning at this facility. And so they’re having to make a choice about, Do I try to protect myself from the cement, or do I try to keep warm?”

Naturally, these reports haven’t stopped Trump from lying about what is happening. Over the weekend, in an interview with Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press,” Trump blamed his predecessor, President Obama, for the policy of separating migrant children from their families. Not only did the hapless Todd fail to challenge him but, as Aaron Rupar of Vox noted, whoever was running the “Meet the Press” Twitter feed repeated Trump’s assertion. In case you had any doubts, it was entirely false, according to Miriam Valverde’s analysis at PolitiFact.

Trump being Trump, news organizations are not being allowed to witness what is taking place in Clint, or at other detention facilities. We have to rely on the reports of public interest lawyers because the press has been banned from witnessing what’s taking place.

As Paul Farhi reports in The Washington Post: “The blackout on press access has left Americans largely in the dark about conditions in government facilities designed to handle migrants who have crossed the border. Photographs and TV images are both rare and often dated. Rarer still are interviews with federal agency managers and employees and with the children themselves.”

Even so, the news that has trickled out has apparently been enough to prompt action. Some of the children were transferred to other, presumably less crowded, facilities. On Tuesday came word that John Sanders, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, would resign — a significant move given that, until now, Trump’s immigration officials have generally been pushed out for insufficient rather than excessive cruelty.

Horrors such as this can lead us to feel enraged — and then, because there seems to be so little we can do, apathetic and resigned. So I want to close with two pieces of information that should spark hope rather than despair.

The first is an editorial in The New York Times that closes with a list of steps we can all take — from contacting elected officials, to donating money to humanitarian organizations, to holding political candidates accountable.

The second is from Warren Binford’s interview with The New Yorker. When the interviewer, Isaac Chotiner, asked her about the “attitude of the guards” toward the lawyers, Binford replied: “They are on our side. Multiple guards told us while we were there that they are on our side and they want us to be successful, because the children don’t belong there, and the children need to be picked up and put in appropriate places for children. They want us to be successful.”

Binford is no Pollyanna, and she acknowledged that there is some cruelty among the guards. But, she said, “I do believe in the inherent goodness of people.”

Binford has seen much worse than we on the outside have. I’m struck by her optimism that most people are good, and that there are steps we can take to counteract the evil in our midst. It may seem in these dark times that there is little that decent people can do. We can’t give in to that type of thinking. The stakes are too high.

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