Torture by any other name

Overcrowded families at a U.S. Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas. Photo from U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General

The horrifying and sickening treatment of child migrants and their families at the U.S.-Mexico border at the hands of at least some federal immigration and customs officials has been called “state-sanctioned child abuse.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general has described conditions in immigration border facilities as a “ticking time bomb”, and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, a trained pediatrician, has condemned the migrants’ treatment.

“Detaining a child even for short periods under good conditions,” Bachelet said, “can have a serious impact on their health and development — consider the damage being done every day by allowing this alarming situation to continue.”

In one of the most recent and graphic descriptions of conditions at the U.S. Border Patrol’s facility in Clint, Texas, according to agents who spoke on condition of anonymity, The New York Times reported, “Outbreaks of scabies, shingles and chickenpox were spreading among the hundreds of children who were being held in cramped cells. The children cried constantly. One girl seemed likely enough to try to kill herself that the agents made her sleep on a cot in front of them, so they could watch her as they were processing new arrivals.”

Children and toddlers separated from their parents were held for days in a cinder-block cell with only one toilet, the Times reported. Agents said they were ordered to remove beds from an overcrowded cell to make space for more children, leaving the children housed there to sleep on concrete floors.

Several members of Congress who visited facilities in El Paso and Clint, said they spoke to women who were told by immigration agents to drink out of the toilet bowl in their cell if they needed water, according to NBC News.

“After I forced myself into a cell w/ women & began speaking to them,” U.S. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez of New York wrote on Twitter, “one of them described their treatment at the hands of officers as ‘psychological warfare’ — waking them at odd hours for no reason, calling them wh*res, etc.”

Some migrant parents said they were separated from their children and had no information about their condition or whereabouts.

Some Democratic presidential candidates have labeled the separation of children from their migrant parents “kidnapping”.

State-sanctioned child abuse? Psychological warfare? Kidnapping?

It’s time we call what it is: torture.

The United Nations defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” to obtain information or intimidate or coerce a person “based on discrimination of any kind…”

Let’s take those points one at at time.

Are some immigration officials engaged in acts “by which severe pain or suffering” is being intentionally being inflicted on the migrants?


The mounting accounts of the treatment of migrants at the hands of immigration officials from journalists, lawyers, congressional representatives and the migrants themselves has been well documented and attests to the pain and suffering being meted out.

Is the treatment aimed at these migrant families “based on discrimination of any kind…” 


Try to imagine waves of white children and their families from anywhere in the world being subjected to the conditions these almost exclusively brown children and their families are facing. It would not happen. If it happened, it would not be tolerated.

Is the goal of the treatment of these migrants meant “to intimidate or coerce”?


The de facto goal of Trump Administration is to strike fear among Central American refugees and deter them from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border or else face being treated inhumanely.

Responding to wide reports of the conditions at border immigration facilities, President Trump tweeted last week, “If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!”

Consider that the most reprehensible inmates in U.S. jails and prisons (murderers, rapists and terrorists) are treated better than the way we are treating these desperate migrant families — who, incidentally, have a right under U.S. law to seek asylum.

And Trump’s willingness to torture immigrants does not stop at the border.

His repeated tweets threatening mass immigration raids nationwide (now expected to begin on Sunday) are designed to do two things: terrorize the millions of undocumented families, the vast majority of whom live and work peacefully among us, while drumming up support from his base of voters.

During the Jim Crow era, white people use to gather and watch the lynching of men and women, mainly blacks, but also Latinos and other people of color. The lynchings were a way for whites to dehumanize non-whites and validate their presumed superiority.

Today’s comparable practices come to us courtesy of viral videos and photos of police shootings of unarmed people of color, again mainly blacks, and the hundreds of preventable deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border of almost exclusively brown immigrants like Oscar Alberto Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria, Central American asylum seekers who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas, last month.

To be clear, I do not believe that all or even most federal immigration and customs officials support the mistreatment of migrants arriving at our border. At least some, according to this week’s New York Times report, have wept openly for those in their charge.

But tears are not enough. The condemnation by public officials, human rights defenders or editorial writers is not enough.

The torture of the anguished people arriving at our borders must be stopped before America joins the ranks of rogue nations around the world better known for exacting human cruelty than protecting human liberty.

James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona, which covers Latino news statewide, and the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.


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