U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker’s Aug. 4 op-ed about his recent visit to the U.S.-Mexico border (“Reflections from the southern border”) was at once disturbing and disappointing, because he glossed over U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s worst abuses —including the deaths of children and the apprehension of U.S. citizens — all while advocating for empowering the very institutions that are perpetuating human rights violations.
As a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, Smucker recently joined members of Congress on a trip to visit an intake facility for people who have applied for asylum or been picked up by ICE; a family detention center; and a long-term detention facility for unaccompanied minors.
In interviews, Smucker has articulated three main takeaways: 1) migrant detention centers are overcrowded; 2) border security must be a higher priority; and 3) Congress should make border patrol agents’ wishes a priority when crafting border and immigration policy.
Smucker’s overall impression, given in an interview with WGAL, was that, “We are responding to people that are coming from terrible situations, and they are being treated well.” Unfortunately, his impressions from his short visit do not acknowledge the depth of the human-rights crisis we are facing. To simply call detention centers “overcrowded” is to ignore a disturbing pattern of deaths, sexual abuse, and lasting psychological harm that current immigration policies pose to children.
Smucker remains silent on the Trump administration’s role in creating a human-rights crisis on the border. By choosing to lock up people who pose no threat to public safety and who are not a flight risk, we are producing a dangerous and cruel environment for all immigrants.
More than 20 people, including children, have died in ICE custody during the Trump presidency. Numerous investigative reports detail children who languished and died due to inadequate medical care, unsanitary conditions and neglect. All died needlessly in U.S. custody.
Families who carry guardianship documents and other proof of identification are coming to the U.S. to seek asylum, following the law in the process, only to have the Border Patrol separate relatives from small children for months at a time. Sometimes these families do not even know how to locate their children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a statement opposing the separation of children from their families in ICE custody on the grounds that these experiences are so stressful they cause irreparable harm.
We have even seen ICE wrongfully detain U.S. citizens of Latin American descent. It is time for our leaders to show moral courage and hold ICE accountable for brutalities that specifically target black and brown bodies. On these policies and abuses of power, Smucker has remained silent and complicit.
Smucker did discuss how overcrowding is a strain on the people who work in what many experts are now rightly calling concentration camps. He would have us believe that simply spending more money on border security would fix these conditions, but they would only reinforce cruel policies that needlessly put families and children in ICE custody.
What is most insidious about Smucker’s arguments is that he presents himself as a moderate “problem solver” when, in fact, he has been willing to stoke immigration fears when it serves his own political career, as we saw in the last election cycle.
As a scholar of Latin American history who has studied over a century of immigration policy, I know that such tactics can have dangerous consequences — as we have seen with recent domestic terrorist attacks in Texas and California. Smucker’s silence about documented human rights abuses, all while presenting himself as a measured observer, is corrosive at a time when extremists are driving immigration policy and sowing fear and hatred with inflammatory rhetoric.
Smucker advocates throwing more money at an abusive enforcement system that has failed to make us safer. About 70% of those in custody at the border are housed in facilities operated by private prison companies, including GEO Group and CoreCivic. These companies make hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Congress and in 2017 they raked in a combined $985 million from their contracts with ICE. Smucker would seemingly have them receive more taxpayer funds in spite of their abysmal record of accountability.
Instead of unquestioningly funding a corrupt prison system that holds children who pose no national security threat to us in inhumane conditions, Smucker and the Problem Solvers Caucus should focus on real solutions, including fundamental changes to immigration policies.
We need, for example, to allow workers who have already paid into our system a chance to become permanent residents, and we need a visa program that pragmatically acknowledges our need for international workers.
Perhaps Smucker should visit Central America and address how our historic and current economic and diplomatic policies and a worsening climate crisis have all worked to make it tough for immigrants to earn a living and find safety back home.
Propping up extremism in our immigration policy and in our treatment of asylum-seekers is no solution.
Laura Shelton is an associate professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College.