When President Trump claimed he would “send” the press to “go in and see” conditions at migrant detection centers, it conjured for me a scene from the classic 1953 World War II drama “Stalag 17.”
In the grim, dingy barracks of a German POW camp, American soldiers are visited by a Geneva Convention official whose job it is to make sure that prisoners of war are treated humanely. Hours before his arrival, Nazi officers issue wool blankets stored away for so long they reek of mothballs. They tout a “typical meal” of bean soup and ham hocks, although the ham hocks are nowhere to be found. One prisoner quips, “When you find it, we’ll send it to Geneva.”
It’s as scripted and concocted as a reality show. And that’s all we’ll get from Trump in his efforts to disprove numerous reports about the squalid conditions at migrant camps on the border.
A recent New York Times investigation found chicken pox, shingles, and scabies outbreaks among hundreds of children held in crowded cells at a facility in Clint, Texas. So pervasive is the stench from the children’s unwashed clothes, it permeates the border agents’ own clothing.
It’s not just media outlets reporting these dire details. Earlier this month, a congressional delegation including Massachusetts Representatives Joe Kennedy III, Ayanna Pressley, and Lori Trahan traveled to two Texas camps. The situation was more dire than they had imagined. They saw children sleeping on concrete floors, people who had not been allowed a shower in weeks, and others forced to drink from toilets.
In remarks outside the Clint facility, Pressley said, “I am tired of the health and the safety, the humanity, and the full freedoms of black and brown children being negotiated and compromised and moderated. We need a system that works, that is humane, and that is compassionate, that keeps families together.”
As Pressley spoke, Trump supporters screamed “fake news” and other invective because, just like their messiah of mendacity, they care even less about facts than the treatment of children.
So when Trump says he wants to “send in” the media, what he means is his personally curated cabal of Fox News talking heads and Breitbart bro-bots. Their reports will make the centers seem like cushy resorts, giving rancid air to the lie that these places are more like “summer camps” than detention centers.
It will be no different than when Melania Trump, in a now-infamous jacket, made an “unannounced” visit to a McAllen, Texas, facility in June 2018. During her tightly-choreographed trip she spoke briefly with kids in a classroom. Later, she said, “It’s a process, yes, but I’m sure they’re very happy. They love to study. They love to go to school.”
I really don’t care what Melania thinks, do you?
Frankly, I’m not even sure why Trump would bother with some dog-and-pony show at a detention center. If he cared about migrants seeking a better life, he would not have immigration policies that are built on punishment and degradation. Instead these are the actions of a man who has spent years denigrating people from Mexico and Central America.
It’s well documented how hard life is in these camps, but Trump’s base doesn’t care how cruelly children and their families are treated because they refuse to see them as human. When a child in US custody dies — and at least seven have on Trump’s watch — the typical response is: “Well, they had no business coming here.”
In her poem “Home,” British-Somali poet Warsan Shire wrote, “You must understand no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” This is what Trump and his supporters refuse to comprehend as they deny this nation’s responsibility to take care of these children in their charge.
Let’s ignore for the moment that Trump believes he can “send” the press anywhere he chooses, as if, like the dictator he wants to be when he grows up, he can control what the media reports. He’ll peddle the lie that migrants deprived even basic services are “very happy with what’s going on [in the camps] because, relatively speaking, they’re in much better shape right now” in US custody.
We’ve all seen the photos, heard the reports from Democratic members of Congress, read the stories. Trump can’t erase that, but he’ll continue to claim he knows better what our own eyes have seen. Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations’ human rights chief, recently said she is “appalled” by the treatment of migrants in detention facilities. “This should never happen anywhere.”
It is happening right here on American soil. Thanks to Trump, never again is now.