Earlier this month, Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala, died of dehydration and shock while in Border Patrol custody in New Mexico. The death is a tragic reminder of the ongoing humanitarian crisis at our southern border, which continues to play out despite disappearing from the 24-hour news cycle.
Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, Maquin’s death has become a political football. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen placed blame on the girl’s father on Fox & Friends earlier this month, stating, “This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey. This family chose to cross illegally.”
However, human rights activists place blame squarely on the federal government, which they claim has fostered an environment of incompetence, cruelty and indifference inside the 137 government-contracted shelters across the country. Conditions inside these facilities, which are nearly at capacity, have been described as spartan at best with disturbing allegations of neglect, malnourishment, forced drugging and abuse surfacing.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, almost 15,000 migrant children currently remain in custody. Most of the detainees are teenage boys, traveling alone, hoping to escape a life of poverty and gang violence for opportunity and education in the U.S.
But as the numbers have climbed, public outrage has dissipated. When the Trump administration first enacted its stringent border policy of detaining children this summer, the public outcry was intense. The policy was derided by Democrats and Republicans alike as needlessly cruel. However, as one Trump controversy was supplanted by another and another, both the public and mainstream press lost sight of the story.
Amid this tragedy, a silver lining has emerged. Last week, HHS announced it would be easing background checks for sponsors. Under the previous policy, every person living in a sponsor’s residence had to undergo fingerprinting and a background check. With many sponsor residences housing multiple families, that process could be painstakingly slow and ineffective; even HHS has admitted it had not necessarily added to the safety of the children.
Moving forward, only sponsors will be undergoing extensive background checks. The streamlined process will expedite releases. By the end of the year as many as 2,000 children could potentially be released to the care of vetted sponsors.
Assistant HHS Secretary Lynn Johnson touted the revision by stating the obvious. “The children should be home with their parents. The government makes lousy parents,” she said in an interview with NPR.
This is good news, but let’s not forget how we got here. The draconian policy of separating families and detaining children is the product of the Trump administration’s hostile attitude toward immigration. From the outset of his campaign, President Trump has painted immigrants with a xenophobic brush, appealing to the basest fears of his supporters. It was a deplorable yet effective gambit that paid off. By othering immigrants, Trump created a convenient scapegoat that uncovered a capacity for human cruelty we often pretend doesn’t exist.
In a recent video commentary, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer pondered the mean-spiritedness of the MAGA-sphere, observing that Trump has elevated the human impulse to a “political virtue.”
“Trump’s biggest backers enjoy his cruelty towards people they have decided deserve it. For them, the cruelty is the point,” he said, recounting how well received his nasty behavior is at his rallies, where crowds cheer when he mocks a disabled reporter, advocates for police brutality and attacks sexual assault victims like Christine Blasey Ford.
While it’s unfair and reductive to write off everyone who voted for Trump as wantonly cruel, those who continue to unequivocally support him have some soul searching to do. When we become incapable of empathy — of feeling the pain of others, of acknowledging their suffering, of understanding their experience — we not only deny their humanity, we deny our own.