A baby fed from the same unwashed bottle, day after day. Detainees told to drink from toilets. All denied baths and toothbrushes in overcrowded cells with a concrete floor for a bed – if they have room to lie down at all.

In Maine, you couldn’t keep dogs in those conditions. Children living like that would be removed from their home, and their guardians would be facing criminal charges.

But along our southern border, it’s the government keeping thousands of families, children and adults, in appalling conditions despite repeated alarms sounded by watchdogs. What’s happening now is a breakdown in human decency that is so out of step with this country’s values that it can’t be tolerated any longer.

The latest evidence comes in a report by the the acting Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security.

The report is titled “Management Alert – DHS needs to address dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults in the Rio Grande Valley,” and it finds that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is failing to meet not only its own standards for humane treatment, but also the conditions the government agreed to in a court-approved consent decree. 

Government investigators found children and adults in overcrowded cells that exceeded fire safety maximum occupancy limits. They found children with little food, no access to showers, no laundry facilities or clean clothes for them to change into. They found that children were routinely detained longer than the 72-hour maximum – nearly one-third of the children they observed, 826 out of 2,669, had been held longer than the limit at the time of the inspection.


The situation was not better for adults. Some were packed into a “standing room only” cell where they were held for more than a week. For more than a month, others were locked in a room with barely enough space to sit down. They found 51 adult women held in a cell designed for no more than 40 juveniles, and 71 adult men in a cell that was limited to 41 women.

Federal officials claim that they are inundated with would-be immigrants who are arriving in numbers not seen in 20 years, That is part of the problem, but it goes deeper than that.

“Deterrence” has been an official government policy for months. The theory is that the United States can make attempted immigration so unpleasant that people would not bother trying to come here. The policy is not only cruel, but also wrongheaded. It’s not just that our standard of living is pulling immigrants to our borders – it’s that violence and oppression are pushing them away from their homes. Many couldn’t turn around no matter how badly they are treated here.

This official attitude has filtered down to the front-line workers, if a private social media platform used by current and former border agents is any indication. Participants use xenophobic and racist language, among other things making jokes about migrants who have died in custody. The posts recall the Abu Ghraib guards who abused prisoners for fun, taking gag photos as trophies, acting as if the Iraqis in their custody weren’t really human.

If the United States is to retain any scrap of credibility as a defender of human rights, this appalling treatment of migrants on our border has got to end. Since the administration won’t do the right thing, it’s up to Congress to act, and there is no time left for patience.

Members of Congress should expect to go down in history for what they did or didn’t do when desperate families who needed help were treated worse than animals.



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