That's the one word I keep coming back to when I think about how the Trump administration — from the president and attorney general of the United States down to rank-and-file border agents and a growing gulag of profiteering private contractors — has treated desperate Central American refugees along our southern border: Contempt.
Contempt for international refugee law — and, more importantly, basic human decency — when Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in response to President Trump's dismay over unauthorized border crossings, declared a "zero tolerance" explicitly designed to use separation of young children from their parents as a tool to deter future migration.
Contempt for human rights when the "zero tolerance" policy allows a defense contractor with $248 million in government contracts to hold detained migrant children in windowless office buildings in Phoenix without kitchens or showers, where kids in U.S. government custody have been observed bathing themselves in sinks.
Contempt for the decency of children, not to mention the law, when these migrant kids are dispatched to a network of largely unaccountable shelters where the investigative reporters of ProPublica have now documented hundreds of allegations of sexual offenses, fights and missing children in a system that one expert called "a gold mine" for predators.
The travesty of the Trump administration's family separation policy has not withstood the sunlight of scrutiny. It has led to massively high levels of public opposition, noisy protests and global condemnation of one of the more shameful episodes in American history. Crucially, it has also been found in violation of the law.
Forty days ago, a federal judge in San Diego named Dana Sabraw (for what it's worth, a George W. Bush appointee) ordered the Trump administration, which had already issued a vague executive order to undo its human rights abuses and end the family separation policy, to speed things up on reuniting detained kids with their mothers and fathers.
Sabraw, who correctly summed up the fiasco as "a chaotic circumstance of the Government's own making," added that "the government has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children. The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property." He gave the Trump administration two weeks to reunite families with kids under 5, and 30 days for all 2,300 kids in federal custody who'd been removed from their parents.
Trump's government has failed, and failed badly. It's been 10 days since the deadline, and yet an alarming number of children — 572 in all — are still in these grim detention centers or with foster parents, kept apart from their families amid dimming hope they will be reunited any time soon. Many of the parents have been deported to Guatemala, Honduras and other nations of origin, with their kids still in the American gulag. As a sign of its impotency, the U.S. government that once put human beings on the moon has actually begged the nongovernmental agency that's suing it, the ACLU, for help in finding the parents of children in their custody.
"All of this is the result of the government's separation and then inability and failure to track and reunite," Judge Sabraw said last week. "And the reality is that for every parent who is not located there will be a permanently orphaned child. And that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration."
It clear — to no one's surprise — that the Trump administration never had any intention of reuniting the kids with their parents once they'd been ripped away from them, often by force or by trickery. This is 2018 — big retailers like Walmart are starting to use sensors to know the exact location of every curtain rod or ping-pong paddle they sell. That no provisions were made to track the locations of children and their parents is an unconscionable crime against humanity.
And it was not a case of official ignorance and unintended consequences. Indeed, one of the most shocking revelations about the self-inflicted family separation crisis was buried this week beneath the media's obsession with the Twitter rantings of our narcissistic and increasing cornered 45th president. A government official testified under oath that his higher-ups ignored explicit warnings that forced separation and detention of these kids would cause permanent psychological damage.
Commander Jonathan D. White of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said his HHS higher-ups were warned "about any policy which would result in family separation due to concerns we had about the best interests of the child."
"There's no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child," said White, a career government official who worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
They knew what they were doing — that literally thousands of children, some of them infants and toddlers, would be forever scarred by how they were treated, with the official stamp of the American government — and they did it anyway. This is "never again"-type stuff, done in our name, and somebody needs to be held accountable.
Of course, accountability isn't exactly our thing in the United States of America — at least not when the rich or the powerful are involved. This is, after all, a nation where you can lie repeatedly, even in your State of the Union address when the cameras are rolling, to make a fake case for a war that killed tens of thousands of people, many of them innocent civilians, and still get a medal draped around your neck.
But the Trump administration is, at this point, openly defying an order from a federal judge. I know that I, as a journalist, would likely be jailed if a judge ordered me to turn over notes or publicly identify a source and I refused (as happened in cases like this and this). Most everyday citizens would be jailed for contempt of court for disobeying a judge. And at this point has anyone shown more contempt for the legal system — let alone basic decency — than high-level Trump administration officials?
It's time for Judge Sabraw to designate a high-ranking government official — my nominees would be HHS Secretary Alex Azar or Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — and make it clear that he or she will be jailed if (barring an extreme circumstance in a particular case) the 572 families are not reunited within a matter of days. That would be a serious remedy for a serious human rights violation.
The idea that family reunification isn't doable is absurd. We are a society, after all, that just moved heaven and earth to save 12 teenage boys and their soccer coach from a flooded, two-mile cave on the other side of the world. But it's also more than that. It's about right and wrong, and contempt for the rule of law.