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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Humans as bargaining chips

The entrance of a Border Patrol station in

The entrance of a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas on June 20, 2019. Credit: AP/Cedar Attanasio

When “Are we running concentration camps on American soil?” becomes a subject of national debate, the immigration wars have heated up past the boiling point.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the controversy-courting Democrat from New York, recently ignited outrage by referring to U.S. detention facilities for migrants on the Southern border as “concentration camps.” Indignant conservatives and many others accused her of trivializing the Holocaust to score political points. Many progressives argued that the term was appropriate, and mass detention of civilians without trial meets the definition. Still others say semantics should not distract us from the human suffering.

A New Yorker interview with one of a group of attorneys who recently visited a Border Patrol facility in Texas that is holding migrant children apart from their parents added fuel to the fire. The piece described shocking conditions: children ranging from toddlers to teen mothers living in filth and squalor without basic necessities.

For many, this appalling dispatch lent further support to the concentration camp narrative — especially after a Justice Department lawyer argued in federal court that the government was not required to provide detainee children with toothbrushes, soap or blankets to meet the legal requirement of “safe and sanitary” conditions. The news cycle reached its nadir with the heartbreaking photo of a migrant from El Salvador and his toddler daughter drowned during the crossing.

Conservatives have responded by crying hypocrisy, claiming that the equally harsh detention of illegal border-crossers and the deaths of migrants under the Obama administration were not condemned with equal fervor. But while the Trump administration’s actions do tend to get more critical scrutiny, the comparisons are misleading.

The children detained under the Obama administration were unaccompanied minors; the Trump administration began family separations as a cruel and ineffective deterrent. Detainees in Obama-era facilities sometimes lacked necessities, but the administration did not defend such conditions. Finally, many of the currently detained border- crossers are not “illegals” but lawful asylum-seekers — and the deliberate obstacles to asylum requests at legal ports of entry force more dangerous crossings.

The concentration-camp label may be inflammatory and inaccurate (for one, the current detainees are not forcibly removed from their homes but are detained after entering this country). Yet labels aside, the Trump administration’s treatment of asylum-seekers and other migrants falls short of basic decency.

It’s true that the surge in migration poses a challenge. One need not be an anti-immigration polemicist to agree that some controls are necessary.

Republicans blame Democrats for resisting sensible solutions, including border-security measures, which once had mainstream Democratic support. But while the Democratic Party has moved dramatically left on immigration, the rise of Trumpism bears much responsibility for that shift. Trump’s venomous, often racist immigrant-bashing and the administration’s hostility to even legal immigration — not to mention enforcement policies that reek of deliberate cruelty — have had an inevitable polarizing effect, tarnishing any policies perceived as anti-immigrant.

Trump’s latest move has been to announce mass deportations of immigrant families here illegally, then suspend the raids for two weeks to give Congress a chance to work out a border deal. But treating humans as bargaining chips is hardly conducive to compromise.

For now, the House on Thursday passed a Senate border spending bill that many progressive Democrats opposed as too friendly to immigration authorities and which some Republicans opposed. Next comes haggling and more “art of the deal” from the White House.

The political gamesmanship will continue while people suffer.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.