Cruelty, Inc.

The Homestead Detention Center. American Friends Service Committee photo

You will have heard the news: on Monday, June 24th, Customs and Border officers removed a couple of hundred children from a filthy, overcrowded “detention center” on the Mexico border.

Come Tuesday, June 25th, 127 of those same children were returned to that same detention center, a place called “inhumane” by lawyers who had seen it.

A doctor called in to treat a flu outbreak at another facility in McAllen, Texas describes “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.”

The conditions meet the United Nations definition of torture.

In an almost-certainly related development (given these horrifying stories), the acting head of US Customs and Border Protection, has resigned.

If these migrant children were dogs, the people responsible for mistreating them would be universally condemned. You and I and everyone else would demand that government put a stop to the cruelty and punish the perpetrators.

The problem is that our government is the perpetrator. In Trump’s America, the children of Guatemalan or Salvadoran or Honduran refugees, some of whom are infants, some of whom are teenaged mothers, almost all of whom have been brought to the U.S. because their parents or their grandmothers or their aunts feared for their lives in Central America, don’t matter.

After all, it’s not as if they’re from, say, Norway.

Florida doesn’t share a border with Mexico, but we’re also warehousing children. And, since this is a state that prides itself on monetizing everything, some people are making a tidy profit.

The Homestead “Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children,” occupies an old training building on the Homestead Air Reserve Base. An outfit called Comprehensive Health Services, Inc. won a $30 million no-bid federal contract to run this place.

CHS is a subsidiary of Caliburn International, a private prison company which employs John Kelly, Trump’s former Secretary of Homeland Security and Chief of Staff. Wonder how he feels about profiting from the pain of frightened children?

We aren’t sure what’s going on at Homestead, given that journalists and even elected officials have either been denied access or given one of those highly-circumscribed North Korean-style “everything’s great here!” tours.

In April this year, Homestead ignored federal law and refused to let three South Florida congresswomen inside, citing the “safety and well-being” of the children.

Comprehensive Health Services officials insist that they lavish care on their junior detainees, with pizza parties and soccer games, English language and American history classes, and general jollification.

According to Fox News blond Laura Ingraham, such child detention centers are just like “summer camp.”

Concentration camp is more like it.

Conditions at Homestead may be as bad as those in Texas. There have been seven allegations of sexual abuse.

Lawyers who have spoken to 76 of Homestead’s more than 3,000 children report that many have been kept there for months, violating the Flores settlement. Kids  are subject to harsh discipline, not allowed to hug a sibling or hold a friend’s hand. Many are depressed and anxious, crying all day, some cutting themselves, unable to speak to family members on the phone and threatened by staff that any infraction–spending longer than five minutes in the shower, not finishing a meal–will be reported to the judge who will decide whether they get deported.

CHS shrugs: it’s not their problem. Because Homestead is on federal land, it’s not subject to inspection by the state Dept. of Education or the Department of Children and Families.

But from the Trump administration’s point of view, everything at Homestead is going swimmingly–they’ve awarded Comprehensive Health Services licenses to build three new child detention centers in Texas.

Hey, it’s good business. CHS charges $775 per kid per day. Licensed community care would cost about half that and be a hell of a lot more humane.

But what’s kindness compared to cash?

Yes, the Obama administration also locked up children, though they were genuinely unaccompanied minors who showed up at the border without an adult. Most of the kids at Homestead came with a family member, though perhaps not a parent. They could be released to a family member today.

Yes, Obama deported a lot of people. Whataboutism doesn’t help the kids being traumatized today–now.

This is the United States of America in 2019: a country that keeps terrified children in concentration camps, a country presided over by a routine violator of the law, of human rights, of general decency.

Americans want to feel that their nation is great because it’s good. Are we still good people, if we take babies from their mothers and treat them worse than animals? Are we still good if we scoff at their suffering?

“We’re doing a fantastic job under the circumstances,” says Donald Trump. If there’s a problem, it’s the Democrats’s fault. It’s Barack Obama’s fault. It’s the Mexicans’s fault. It’s not Trump’s fault.

Nothing is ever Trump’s fault. And, worst of all, his cruelty plays well with his base.

Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.

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