When It Comes to Immigrant Children, Let’s Agree to Do Better

A photo of a “concentration camp” for immigrant children that recently went viral originates in the Obama administration but proves we can do better for immigrant children.

A 2014 photo showing immigrant kids in cages resembling dog kennels has recently stoked internet outrage. The image, shared in tweets by many left-wing firebrands, was identified by notable commentators Shaun King and Jon Favreau as a Trump “concentration camp” for immigrant children separated from family members, per new Trump administration policy. But that was wrong. In fact, the image was captured during the Obama administration and shows a temporary response to a 2014 surge in unaccompanied minors entering the country. Naturally, Trump gloated about the whole thing, but the reality is that the picture could have been taken yesterday or four years ago or a decade ago or a decade before that.

America has been letting down immigrant children for a long time. Presidents of both parties have done so. Irresponsible is, when it comes to the handling of very young immigrants, the default mode.

Unfortunately, the viral dust-up didn’t do anything at all to help improve the lot of immigrant kids. The picture should have prompted Americans of all stripes to agree that we, as a nation of ostensibly compassionate people, shouldn’t be making laws that make the lives of immigrant kids worse. Instead, it prompted some partisan fighting. That’s a plague on both houses.

It’s important to understand the context of the photograph which shows two children lying facedown on the floor behind chain-link. The image was part of an Arizona newspaper report exposing conditions in a temporary family detention facility run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in the Arizona border town of Nogales. The area had experienced an unprecedented surge of unaccompanied alien minors, with some 900 kids and teens apprehended at the border in a short amount of time. In order to deal with the flood of kids, ad-hoc accommodations were created. They were objectively awful.

The detention centers featured chain link enclosures where kids were left with sleeping mats, muted televisions, porta-potties and little else to occupy them. Although they received medical treatment, food, and water, and were finally safe from the Sonoran desert, the facilities were shockingly sparse, smelly, and reminiscent of animal shelters. Again, this all occurred on the Obama administration’s watch. And it wasn’t the only failed attempt to receive immigrant children. In fact, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) received a legal smackdown in 2015 after a judge ruled they were violating a contract mandating their family detention facilities be licensed and unsecured, giving children oversight and freedom of movement. The judge even called the ICE facility conditions “deplorable.”

It is completely reasonable for liberal-minded, pro-immigration types to acknowledge the Obama administration’s failure to care for undocumented kids. But that shouldn’t negate their criticism of a Trump program (inaccurately attributed to laws passed by Democrats) dictating that children be torn away from their parents, which was implemented by his own Attorney General. And if conservatives don’t care to watch families torn apart, it’s perfectly valid for them to criticize new Trump policy. We don’t need to stay in our political camps — especially when kids are living in deplorable conditions in very literal camps along the border.

There would seem to be at least one thing all sides can agree on: Any policy that puts children in difficulty or danger is morally inexcusable. We don’t need to agree on abortion, gay marriage, the Mueller investigation, gerrymandering, Russia policy, or basically anything else to grant that premise. So let’s do it. Let’s grant the premise together and then, with our full force, demand that politicians of both parties do better to protect children.

This viral photo is an opportunity to come together because it illustrates the woeful response from both sides of the aisle. Why was it retweeted by thousands on the left without question? Because it was a plausible image of current Trump policy. Considering it was an actual image of Obama’s policy, it’s clear that the response to undocumented children from both parties has been inadequate. And, judging from reactions on both sides, no one is okay with either. The knee-jerk politicizing is the problem. We need to stop and stare at the picture and demand better of all politicians rather than allowing for them to continue playing hot potato with children’s lives.

Regardless of your political affiliation, you should be angry and heartbroken at seeing kids detained behind chain-link fences in 2014. But your concerns, then, should be even more pressing for children who, four years later, are being removed from their families and placed in contemporary facilities that are just as awful. These are children who it is in our power to help right now.

And you should feel sympathy when seeing two kids sharing a mat in a United States detention center. But you should feel just as sympathetic when considering kids who are seeking asylum in the states after fleeing abuse, rape, and drug violence in their own countries.

The problem with blind political fealty is that it is, above all, blind. And the children at our border need us to be observant and see them not through the eyes of a Democrat or a Republican, but of a human being.