Detention and Dignity At the Southern Border

Shrill rhetoric, political posturing and unwarranted historical comparisons have dominated coverage and commentary about the detention centers on the southern border in which would-be immigrants, largely refugees from Central America, are being held for processing.

But all the noise should not be allowed to drown out the seriousness of the actual issue, on which a harsh light was cast last Tuesday by a report from no less than the Department of Homeland Security itself. Specifically, from its internal supervisory body, the Office of Inspector General (OIG), established alongside the DHS in 2002. The report resulted from visits in June to Border Patrol facilities and ports of entry across the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, the busiest area of the country for illegal border crossings.

The publicly released, redacted version of the report documents disturbing conditions in several Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention centers in south Texas, including serious overcrowding, children going without a hot meal for days and distraught detainees begging to not be returned to their cells. Photographs of fenced-in, standing-room-only pens and written pleas from detainees held up to the glass of a holding cell accompanied the report.

The OIG did not mince words. “We are concerned,” the report stated baldly, “that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety of DHS agents and officers, and to those detained.”

Among the findings catalogued in the report was that more than 50 women were crowded into one cell designed to hold 40 juveniles. In another room designated for 41 detainees, 71 men were being held.

The government agency also found that many detainees had been held in CBP custody for “prolonged” periods of time. Dozens of small children, the report stated, had been in custody for over two weeks, despite the requirement that minors are supposed to be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours of their apprehension.

In several facilities, moreover, it was found that detained children had no access to showers or clean clothes.

Of late, despite efforts to dissuade would-be immigrants, the U.S. has experienced an unprecedented surge of Central American families and unaccompanied children heading towards the U.S.-Mexico border, which is a major factor in the unfortunate situation at the detention centers.

The inspector general acknowledged that the CBP had taken measures to try to address some of the problems, noting that “We recognize the extraordinary challenges CBP faces.” But the report added that “We remain concerned that DHS is not taking sufficient measures to address prolonged detention in CBP custody among single adults.” The report calls for “immediate attention and action.”

The inspectors had to cut short their visit at one site “because our presence was agitating an already difficult situation. Specifically, when detainees observed us, they banged on the cell windows, shouted, pressed notes to the window with their time in custody and gestured to evidence of their time in custody (e.g., beards).”

That there have been, and still are, worse conditions of confinement in other countries is unarguable. But it is not particularly pertinent. Our country was founded on high ideals, and on concern for the wellbeing of not only its citizens but, no less, of the “tired… poor… huddled masses yearning to breathe free” immortalized in Emma Lazarus’ poem inscribed on a plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

We Jews know well what it means to be refugees. Our recent and distant ancestors were forced to flee countless lands and seek safety and security beyond borders and on new shores.

While there is surely a need to regulate immigration, and to have in place the means of discerning which would-be immigrants are deserving of the opportunities to live in our country and which pose dangers to the populace, there can be no doubt in Jewish hearts that innocent human beings seeking only to be able to live unthreatened lives and provide for their families need to be treated with mercy, and that their dignity deserves to be protected.

Some worry that immigration from Third World countries is a threat to the economy and welfare system. But many had the same worry about Jews seeking to better their fortunes both before and after the Second World War.

And there is broad agreement among researchers and analysts that immigration raises total economic output; and that immigrants are considerably less likely than native Americans to commit crimes.

Laws exist for reasons, and those seeking to enter the country illegally must respect the laws of the land and understand why they need to be detained and processed. But their own dignity is deserving of respect as well.

We urge the government to do everything possible to maintain that respect.