Not long ago, President Donald Trump tweeted that detained migrants, most hailing from Central American countries, are “living far better now than where they came from, and in far safer conditions.”
Trump was responding to searing reports of the filthy and overcrowded facilities where detainees, including young children, endure a lack of access to water, food and showers. To state the obvious, Trump’s comments display his callousness, lack of empathy and petulant belief that lies and deception make everything better.
But after my initial horror, I realized: He’s not entirely wrong.
Many recent migrants to the United States left their home countries because they faced such extreme conditions that they decided to risk their lives and the lives of their children to come to a country whose president is hostile to their very existence.
To say they are living “far better” in U.S. facilities is not a testament to the quality of our largely privatized detention system. Rather, it should prompt us to do as much as is humanly possible to welcome and support newly arrived migrants.
In November 2018, I spent a week as a volunteer at the South Texas Residential Family Center, the largest U.S. detention facility for migrant women and children. I was part of a team providing free legal counsel to the revolving door of mothers jailed for daring to escape untenable conditions in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
All of the women I worked with that week had recently crossed the Rio Grande River with their children and were picked up by Customs and Border Patrol. There they were held, sometimes for several days, either in freezing cells with nothing but a thin aluminum foil blanket to keep their wet bodies warm or in rooms divided by floor-to-ceiling chain linked fences, evoking images of a dog pound. These they called the hielera (“icebox”) and the perrera (“dog pound”).
When I asked women about the conditions they experienced, most would physically shudder.
In preparation for their credible fear interviews in front of an immigration judge, the women shared why they left their home countries to seek asylum in the United States. All had stories of unimaginable violence, danger and fear. Many told of trying to escape desperate poverty by running pulperías, or little snack shops, out of their homes in order to feed their children, only to be threatened and extorted by gang members.
One young Honduran mother of a 2-year-old boy described to me how she was stalked and ultimately kidnapped by a gang member who attempted to sexually assault her. When he discovered that she was menstruating, he tossed her out of a moving car and spat on her. Fellow gang members harassed her, extorted her meager earnings, and threatened to kill her son if she refused to date the gang leader who abducted her. So she undertook the harrowing and treacherous journey to the United States.
When Donald Trump says the people imprisoned in the U.S. detention centers are living in “far safer conditions” than they were in their home countries, we should put that into perspective. In fact, to the extent that his statement is true, it should serve to bolster the asylum cases of migrants like the young mother I met in Texas. Clearly, if the appalling conditions in detention centers are an improvement, these migrants have a sufficient basis for seeking asylum in the United States.
We should empty the immigration jails and place migrants with the countless American families who have said they are willing to open their doors and support those in desperate need. These migrants could then apply for work visas and begin anew. To quote from Trump’s same Tweet, “All problems solved!”
Megan Klein is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.