As a Jew who had family members killed in the Holocaust, I’m agnostic about what to call facilities in the United States holding asylum seekers.
But there’s one thing about which I’m certain: It’s wrong to treat immigrants in a dehumanizing way.
Yet recently, we’ve seen horrific conditions.
Infants and children in our care are in conditions that damage their young lives.
We know that because people went to these facilities and saw for themselves.
In Clint, Texas, according to 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. Most of the young detainees have not been able to shower or wash their clothes since they arrived at the facility, those who visited said. They have no access to toothbrushes, toothpaste or soap.”
Visitors had to make authorities provide care for sick children. According to one report from the Huffington Post, “Four toddlers were so severely ill and neglected at a U.S. Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, that lawyers forced the government to hospitalize them last week. The children, all under age 3 with teenage mothers or guardians, were feverish, coughing, vomiting and had diarrhea. . . One 2-year-old’s eyes were rolled back in her head, and she was ‘completely unresponsive’ and limp, according to Toby Gialluca, a Florida-based attorney.”
A doctor who inspected a facility holding children said it had “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.” Not having the ability to wash hands was, she said, “tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease.” And even infants’ bottles could not be washed.
Most children in the Clint facility were just moved in response to the conditions being exposed. But let’s not forget that the Trump administration adopted new policies on separating immigrant children from their families in April 2018. Some were placed at for-profit detention centers at which the administration lowered set standards for health care.
History will not be kind to those carried out these policies, and to those who could have acted but didn’t.
In Maine, legal asylum seekers are being treated humanely but we’ve seen fear-mongering and conspiracy theorizing.
In a recent video, Nick Isgro, the mayor of Waterville and vice-chair of the Maine Republican Party, said that a few hundred asylum seekers in Portland pose an “existential threat to the entire state,” affecting Maine for the next 10 to 20 years.
A few months ago Isgro wrongly claimed a link between immigrants and disease and argued this somehow meant Maine should not toughen vaccination laws. Some Republicans criticized these words. But there has been silence in reaction to Isgro’s latest salvos, including those from a group Isgro co-founded, which said that “children are now, by government fiat, force vaccinated to help make way for incoming waves of migrants.”
Undermining asylum seekers’ agency, Isgro called asylum seekers “human pawns in a game being played by global elites” in the video he posted about ten days ago.
Isgro’s claim that he thinks Americans should be taken care of first is belied by Republican opposition to funding programs for citizens’ health care, food and other needs.
And each of these aspects of Isgro’s rhetoric — immigrants as disease-ridden, threats, and products of shadowy elites — evokes phrases commonly used by the violent, anti-Semitic alt-right and mirrors false, xenophobic propaganda.
To be sure, there are legitimate differences about immigration policy, but the treatment of children in these camps and misleading and negative rhetoric fly in the face of our best traditions.
In his farewell address, President Reagan praised America’s openness, saying the image he thought of to describe “what the past eight years have meant and mean,” included “a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor.”
My religion does not allow me to see immigrants as anything but people. Our sacred Hebrew texts repeatedly tell us “to welcome the stranger,” more than it commands anything else.
And so I do not care what we call the places we hold those who come to our shores. What matters is how these people are treated and talked about, for that ultimately is what speaks to their humanity and our commitment to respect our fellow human beings.