Last August, the Register-Guard editorial board praised Oregon’s congressional delegation for its response to the Trump administration’s inhumane border policies. We observed that no lawmaker had done more than Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley to call attention to the separation of immigrant families detained at the border and the conditions in which children were being held.
Nearly a year later, Merkley’s warnings remain relevant. In the past few weeks, a wave of first-hand accounts have confirmed the findings of a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general that documented dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in immigrant detention facilities.
Merkley and the rest of Oregon’s congressional delegation have said the right things in response, but they have not backed up words with effective action to ensure that immigration enforcement is fair and humane.
The lack of empathy among many Americans toward this situation is disgusting, especially when it comes to children in detention centers. At a minimum, anyone detained by the United States deserves to be held in sanitary conditions, with access to showers, sufficient food and water and a safe place to sleep. We should provide these things not because we are generous but because they are basic human rights and the least we can do.
Has America learned nothing from its past atrocities? This country repeatedly dehumanized non-whites throughout its history. Native Americans were relegated to reservations. African Americans were slaves and then pushed into segregated communities and denied equal rights. Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps during World War II, their property and homes stolen. Now we lock up immigrants who cross our southern border.
History judged those past incidents poorly. Will America look back in 50 years at immigration detention with the same shame? Perhaps it’s already too late, and that judgment unavoidable.
History also will judge those who could have effected real change. More than 200 people in Eugene recently protested immigrant detention centers. The state’s congressional delegation should heed them.
Oregon’s lawmakers consistently have said the right things in response to this crisis. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici called the stories out of the camps “compelling and disturbing” and said that the deplorable practices in them “must stop now.” Her fellow Democrats — Merkley, Sen. Ron Wyden, and Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Shrader have criticized detention policies, too.
Even the state’s lone Republican in Congress, Rep. Greg Walden, investigated detention facilities last year and deplored the conditions he found. “Children should be cared for as if they were our own children until they are reunified with their families,” he said.
So many words but so little action. Oregon’s delegation needs to inspect detention facilities anew. They must work to shine greater transparency on them and fight to get the media in so that all Americans can understand the tragedy that is unfolding mostly out of sight.
America needs a serious, concerted and effective remedy to the laws and policies that allow horrible conditions to fester. A federal judge ordered fixes to the immigrant detention system, but all evidence suggests that they have not happened.
The detention crisis is cruel political theater, the result of a threadbare immigration court system and a network of detention facilities pressed into service entirely out of proportion with their intended charge of holding immigrants for 72 hours. An effective remediation plan will address those fundamental problems. DHS has not produced that plan, so lawmakers must do so.
Appalling stories like the ones continuing to flow from immigrant detention facilities do not reflect who Americans are as a people. It is past time for our leaders, particularly those who represent us in Congress, to step up and prove that to be the case.
The question before Americans is not whether we are in some sense nobler and better than our government’s actions make us out to be. It is whether we have the will and wherewithal to act decisively upon our nobler instincts and to right the wrongs committed in the name of our country.
We are all capable of saying the right things. Most of us do. But Oregon’s congressional delegation can and must do more than that. There has been enough sophistry; now is the time for leadership and action.