STAR LAKE — In the beginning there was a photograph. A little girl sobbed next to her mother as they were being separated.
There was news footage of hastily erected tent cities and repurposed warehouses to hold the thousands of people involved. These were people who presented themselves at the border.
They did not attempt to enter the country illegally. They were seeking asylum from life-threatening situations in their home countries.
Seeking asylum is not illegal. But we took hungry, thirsty, worn-out and desperate people asking for help and put them in jail.
Parents, separated from their children, were detained and then in many cases deported without their children. It soon became clear that no system of documentation had been implemented when removing these children from their parents, making it difficult, if not impossible, to reunite the families.
When all of this started, no one was allowed to inspect the detention centers. Considering the controversy about family separation and immigrant detention in general, it was inevitable that the conditions would eventually be revealed.
One thing is clear. The millions of dollars spent to detain the children and their families are not being spent on maintaining a healthy, clean environment.
These children have been imprisoned. The fences surrounding the facilities have razor wire along the top. Children have been held for weeks and months despite the requirements of the Flores Settlement Agreement passed in 1997.
Reports have been consistent. All cite inadequate hygiene availability and little running water. No soap or toothpaste and toothbrush. No clean clothes. Lice infestation and overcrowding. Children are sleeping on floor mats covered by aluminum blankets and many times directly on concrete floors. We’ve seen the pictures.
There are those who say that these children lived in similarly desperate conditions before leaving their country of origin. That may be, but they had their families with them. Now they are alone.
How did immigration become such a crisis? Since 1882, there have been laws establishing certain criteria for immigrants entering the United States.
However, at no time in our history has there been this many refugees being held by our government. The escalation of the war on drugs, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and other events that threatened the safety of our borders required new laws be put in place, but that does not fully account for the current situation.
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump proposed the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico to keep out what he called “rapists” and “murderers.” Every rally found people shouting their agreement with Trump’s assessment of Mexicans and those seeking to immigrate through the Southern border as “animals” and “MS13 gang members.” It was as if Trump and his supporters blamed Mexicans for every social problem in the United States whether it be drug abuse, crime or unemployment.
Having set the stage for harsher immigration policies, it wasn’t long after the inauguration that Trump signed executive orders creating the family separation policy and the detention of asylum seekers. Prior to that, immigrants who were found to have no criminal past were allowed monitored release before their hearings. This program was called “catch and release.”
Now, all detainees are being held. This has created an immediate acceleration in the numbers of people being incarcerated. What had been an issue is now a crisis.
At the same time, the collapse of the governments and economies of both Guatemala and Venezuela created conditions that resulted in a massive flight of refugees. It was, in many ways, the perfect storm.
Meanwhile, the private prison companies, having been involved in the detention of immigrants since 1984, saw a perfect opportunity for growth.
During the 2016 election private prison companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic each donated thousands of dollars to Trump’s campaign. GEO Group moved its annual conference to the Trump National Doral Golf Club in Miami.
Additionally, both GEO Group and CoreCivic heavily lobbied members of the House Committee on Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Homeland Security. These are the groups responsible for funding immigrant detention. It paid off.
In February 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a U.S. Department of Justice memo that had intended to reduce the use of private prisons. This was a green light for CoreCivic and GEO Group. Their stocks increased by 137 percent and 98 percent, respectively, by the end of that month.
These are not the only two entities cashing in on immigrant detention. According to a May 4 report in Business Insider, Caliburn International operates a shelter in Homestead, Fla.
This is its only shelter, but it is capable of housing 3,200 unaccompanied minors at any one time. John Kelly, former White House chief of staff and a strong advocate of Trump’s harsh immigration policies, serves on the board of directors of Caliburn International.
The detention centers have been called concentration camps. Others object to that term.
Does it matter? Does anyone believe they would feel comfortable with their child or grandchild being held under these conditions?
How long do you think it would be before the beautiful child you once knew no longer existed? Your child, now traumatized, would have trust and abandonment issues that could last a lifetime.
It is difficult to ascertain how many people are being detained at any one time. But an article in the Daily Beast published Dec. 27 reported that $807 million was spent in fiscal year 2018 to house detainees in private prisons. According to the story, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s budget request for the current fiscal year anticipated detaining a total of 52,000 people every day.
How does any of this make sense? The answer is, it doesn’t!
So why was this crisis created? The answer that comes to my mind is, “Follow the money.”
Skye Opel, formerly of Rochester, is retired and lives in Star Lake. She has worked as a blues singer, organic gardener, prep cook at a French restaurant, housecleaner, a very bad waitress, paralegal, registered nurse and an herbalist.