Our muddled lapses with the huddled masses
June 24, 2018
Widespread outrage has been expressed against the separation of children from their parents at immigration detention centers in America. The criticism is deserved and the condemnation is understandable.
Trump, of course, is the immediate villain but how did we get here? This is, obviously, a very complex topic but here are a few essential elements.
The treatment of children, particularly those of immigrants and slaves, has ranged from despicable to deplorable to contentious through many periods of American history.
Young, for Sale (1800s)
During the era of slavery, in the American South, children and adults were sold, each one as a separate unit, as chattel. Children were sold separately from their parents at auctions. The sale of children was so much in vogue that Daina Ramey Berry, a professor of history at the University of Texas, constructed a database of their pricing and sales history for her book “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.”
Even in the Northern states, where slavery was being phased out gradually, there was a perverse incentive to sell off black slaves while they were still children because, once they reached adulthood, they became “free” slaves and could not be “sold.”
Kids, in Sweat Shops (1900s)
For a range of historical reasons, children got no special consideration under American laws until recent decades. By the early 1900s, nearly 50% of native-born American children were employed as child laborers. Children were employed in coal mines and grimy factories, some in twelve-hour-long shifts. It took until the 1930s for America to pass national child-labor laws, nearly a century after Britain and other European countries did.
Haitian children, deported
Following a military coup in Haiti in 1994, over 20,000 Haitians sought asylum in the United States. President Clinton reopened the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to house the refugees. Hundreds of unaccompanied children, including some as young as two months old, were housed in an area called “Camp Nine.” A 14-year-old girl was sexually abused by the head of “house parents” and a 16-year-old girl was raped. Disobedient children were punished, forced to kneel in the sun and sent to a jail termed “Little Buckley.” A few children became severely depressed and attempted suicide. In November 1994, several children, dressed in white, went on hunger strike.
Several church groups, women’s organizations and celebrities appealed to Attorney General Janet Reno to allow at least those children who had relatives in the United States to be admitted.
By March 1995, faced with protests and political pressure, the Clinton administration started to forcibly send the children back to Haiti. In mid-1995, Camp Nine children rebelled and burned their tents and clashed with camp guards. Months later, the American government allowed over a hundred children on humanitarian grounds but several thousands of other children were sent back to Haiti.
The Cuban Boy Bust
In November 1999, Elizabeth Gonzalez, her 6-year-old boy and her boyfriend set sail to seek refuge in the United States. The mother drowned, off the coast of Florida, and the boy, Elian, ended up in the custody of immigration officials. Elian’s parental relatives in Florida filed a petition for asylum. The US government refused to grant the relatives legal status to file the petition. The case went to the Supreme Court but without a clear verdict.
In a surprise early-morning raid, President Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, dispatched armed federal agents to the house where the boy was being held and forcibly took the boy away and deported him to Cuba. By then, television had become a powerful social medium. Live coverage of armed federal agents, whisking the boy away, left the whole nation scratching its collective head.
Children, Separated (“Flores Settlement”)
In the mid-1980s, a Salvadoran woman had become a legal immigrant and was working as a housekeeper at a Hollywood actor’s (Ed Asner’s) house. She had left her daughter, Jenny Flores, behind in El Salvador. The daughter entered the US illegally and was taken into custody by immigration officials.
The Hollywood actor hired a lawyer to pursue the case of Jenny Flores who had been housed in a hotel along with several other children and adults who were also being held in custody.
During those times (1980s), trafficking in teenage girls into the US was a big issue and the case of Jenny Flores drew immediate interest from a number of progressive groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
ACLU had been waging many battles against the Reagan government and his Attorney General (Ed Meese). Ed Meese was a lightning rod and was reviled even more than Jeff Sessions is today.
The Hollywood actor’s lawyer was soon joined by ACLU and other interest groups. They sued the United States government alleging that the conditions under which children were being held by immigration authorities did not meet the standards required for their health, education and emotional needs.
The Flores case went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in a lengthy “settlement” in 1997 between the plaintiffs and the government. The Flores Settlement provided new guidelines for the treatment of detainees including a rule that children could not be sheltered with adults for more than 20 days.
George W. Bush and Obama were hobbled by the cumbersome parts of Flores Settlement too.
In 2014, another large wave of Central American refugees, including thousands of children, streamed into the United States. Again, Obama administration had to keep children separated, to comply with the Flores Settlement. Obama used a softer and eclectic approach. He appealed to the courts for exemption while keeping many children with their parents. Many unaccompanied children were kept in poor conditions, in crowded cages. Most of the detainees were released avoiding a public outcry.
In 2016, the courts denied Obama’s request, leaving his successors, Trump et al, to deal with it. And, Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” policy left no room for finesse or nuance.
Illegal, in the Millions
Until 1980s, 20th Century immigration to America was predominantly from war-torn parts of Europe, Middle East, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia and from Communist regimes in Europe and China.
In the 1980s, America became a magnet for immigrants as the US economy went into accelerated growth, while most other regions of the world lagged behind. Latin American countries languished under Soviet-style socialism, compounded by corrupt governments.
America’s growing need for labor started to attract large waves of both legal and illegal immigrants. Most legal immigrants came through highly-secure airports while most illegal immigrants crossed the porous southern border. Thus started a two-tier immigration system, under which legal and illegal immigrants are lumped together unfairly in some circumstances while they are also pitted against each other in others.
Under American immigration laws, all illegal aliens are subject to being deported. Those claiming political asylum must be given a judicial hearing. Authorities must examine whether the adults bringing children are really related to those kids or not. Most have no documents. Kids whose parents cannot be identified have to be processed for foster-care in America. Churches and volunteers are also involved in this.
America does not have enough judges to process all asylum-seekers right away. The process could take weeks or months.
Since the mid-1980s, over 11 million aliens are believed to have entered the US and stayed on permanently and illegally, working in low-skilled jobs in unorganized sectors. Over 800,000 of these illegal aliens were children when they entered the United States and have since grown up into adults, alongside legal Americans. We refer to this group fondly as “Dreamers” (pursuing the so-called “American Dream” with all other Americans).
How did so many millions of illegal aliens become so entrenched in America which calls itself a “country of laws?”
This is a result of several intertwined factors. The US economy needs more laborers. Illegal aliens have filled much of this need, providing low-wage workers to employers most of whom are private, small businesses and farms. Republicans favor business interests and have turned a blind-eye to illegal immigration. The cost of healthcare and education of illegal immigrants has been borne by the government (mostly at the state and local levels). Democrats extended their progressive policies to illegal immigrants which exacerbated the public cost. In essence, illegal immigration benefits private businesses while their cost is “socialized” and borne by the public at large, a form of “business welfare” arrangement.
Meanwhile, the Federal Government’s budget has been channeled towards wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for other national entitlement programs, leaving immigration authorities with dwindling budgets. Apprehending and deporting illegal aliens became a much lower unaffordable goal. Both under Democrat and Republican regimes, immigration enforcement has been at a low level, allowing the illegal alien population to grow intractably.
Adding a new dimension, the claim for asylum of most of the Central American refugees is not the traditional flight from religious or political persecution. They are fleeing local criminal gangs! America’s unending war on illegal drugs has spawned a parallel war of criminal gangs in countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico where armed gangs are terrorizing the local population, driving thousands of families to flee towards the perceived safety of America. Large groups of Central American refugees are traveling across hundreds of miles north, to the American border, with no documents and no knowledge of what awaits them here.
In 2016, Trump campaigned and won with a promise to step up immigration enforcement, with a “zero tolerance” policy.
Despite his harsher enforcement and rhetoric, Trump is also faced with the continuing influx of Central American refugees.
Caught with the outrage over children separated from parents, Trump has issued an Executive Order allowing children to remain with their parents beyond the period allowed under Flores Settlement, and has also filed an appeal to the court to make his Executive Order permanent and binding.
Going a step further, Trump asks whether we could dispense with the judicial hearings altogether.
More to come … on a story with no (happy or sad) end …
Our history tells us that we, the people, all our presidents and both political parties have had a role in shaping the predicaments we are in.
Our government, bureaucrats and laws work well most of the time but, episodically, we seem to plunge into mean streaks. Ed Meese, Janet Reno, Trump are all parts of this legacy, our legacy.
We have managed to come out of most of these episodes chastened and reformed, but never perfect.
Haven’t we seen this movie before?