Out journalist Masha Gessen, an expert on Russian President Vladimir Putin and authoritarianism, pulled no rhetorical punches.
“I don’t think we have fascist rule in this country, but what we have is a fascist leader,” Gessen told MSNBC’s Joy Reid on June 23, referring to President Donald Trump. “We have a nativist, nationalist leader who is devoting all his energy into portraying a group of people as a super dangerous enemy, both sort of subhuman animals, right, ‘infestation,’ and superhuman at the same time because they’re so frightening— because if we don’t protect ourselves, terrible things will happen, we don’t know what kind of catastrophe will befall us,” encapsulating Trump’s use of fear tactics and dehumanizing language about immigrants to rile his base.
“That is fascism,” Gessen said. “Whether we allow fascism to take over this entire country is an open question and none of us knows what’s going to happen. But it is by no means hyperbole to call Trump a fascist.”
Gessen noted how slowly fascism takes hold. “Somebody posted recently the mock cover that The Boston Globe did before Trump’s election to try to scare people that said, ‘Deportations to Begin.’ And we thought it would be so shocking just a year and a half ago—and now we’re in the middle of it,” she said. “Deportations have long since begun and worse than deportations.”
“And soon internment camps,” Reid added as an almost throwaway afterthought.
And then came the internment camps—for children.
But first came the announcement. In March 2017, Trump called for an end to the “catch and release” policy whereby migrants crossing illegally into the US, a misdemeanor, would be freed to stay in the country while awaiting a court hearing. A Department of Homeland Security proposal called for women and children to be separated as a deterrent to mothers.
Implementing the new policy proposal “could create lifelong psychological trauma,” Marielena Hincapie, executive director at the National Immigration Law Center, told Reuters for a March 3, 2017 story. “Especially for children that have just completed a perilous journey from Central America.”
A year later, on April 6, 2018, Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy. Lest anyone miss the point, Sessions went to Friendship Park on the border on May 8 and gleefully spelled out the new policy.
“People are not going to caravan or otherwise stampede our border. We need legality and integrity in the system. That’s why the Department of Homeland Security is now referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution. And the Department of Justice will take up those cases,” he said. “If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”
The felony criminalization of immigration forced authorities to take a child while the parent was referred for prosecution, which often resulted in deportation without the child. Sessions later declared that asylum would not be granted to anyone fleeing from domestic violence or gangs.
Asked by NPR if separating a child from a mother is “cruel and heartless,” White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said on May 11: “I wouldn’t put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”
During a May 15 Senate committee hearing, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that families seeking asylum who present themselves at ports of entry stay together. However, DHS later clarified that families may be separated if they can’t prove a custodial relationship or if DHS thinks a child may be at risk, being used by a trafficker to gain entry. In practice, asylum seekers who presented themselves at a point of entry were blocked, forced to find another way into the country, thus making their crossing illegal, with the children removed.
On May 29, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a 21 percent surge in one month in unaccompanied children in government detention centers. “Although the government has not disclosed how many children have been separated from their parents as a result of the new measures, [HHS] said Tuesday that it had 10,773 migrant children in its custody, up from 8,886 on April 29,” the Washington Post reported.
More than 100 children under the age of 4 were taken from their mothers, including breast-feeding infants, The New York Times reported, using data provided by HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The policy was the last straw for former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt who renounced his membership in the Republican Party, now “fully the party of Trump.”
“This child separation policy is connected to the worst abuses of humanity in our history. It is connected by the same evil that separated families during slavery and dislocated tribes and broke up Native American families,” he said in the thread. “Today the GOP has become a danger to our democracy and values.”
Schmidt also came close to calling Trump a fascist. “Conservatism has become synonymous with obedience to the leader – a leader who says ‘I am the law. I am above the law. I will define what truth is.’ Truth is what the leader says it is, not what we would have recognized months ago as objective truth,” Schmidt told MSNBC. “The last time this happened, it unleashed a tragedy the likes of which the world has never seen. And I think there is a real lack of imagination in this country about how fragile these institutions are and how dangerous a president as unprepared, as authoritarian, as ignorant as he is—the damage he would be able to cause.”
The government tried to control the detention narrative. But reporting by Los Angeles native Jacob Soboroff for MSNBC after touring a facility in McAllen, Texas burst through. He described essentially a prison with “babies sitting by themselves in a cage with other babies.” He said reporters on the tour were asked to smile at the kids because they “feel like animals locked up in cages.” ProPublica released smuggled audio of young children crying for their parents. Reports of “tender-age shelters” and the sight of young people escorted in the dark of night to facilities around the country caused outrage.
Trump said he didn’t like the images and on June 20 signed an executive order that kept in place his “zero-tolerance” policy, but allows families to stay together while the parents are being prosecuted. However, many questions remain: what happens if the parents’ cases are not adjudicated within 20 days, when a federal court settlement requires that children be released from detention?
And while a San Diego judge ordered family reunification within 30 days of separation, the government has apparently not been keeping track of the children, including infants and toddlers who do not know their names. More than 2,300 children are in government custody since the separation policy started in April.
“I miss my mother and when I see those children on the border it rips my heart out,” says Maria (a pseudonym to protect her identity). “She died trying to get me here. She carried me from Honduras, first on a bicycle, then a van, a train, on foot, on bus…We traveled for such a long way, it took months. I remember it. She died in a small town on the side of the road in Mexico trying to get to my brother in California. She was not a criminal. She only wanted to give us both a better life but she didn’t make it. I was only 6 years old.
Maria remembers the good part of the journey. “People don’t understand. For 99 percent of the people, the journey is a highlight of their life, sometimes the only family they have in the world are people they meet along the way. They take care of each other, feed each other, share everything and they look out for the children, even the older boys who travel alone,” she says. “When my mother died people took care of me, they knew what my mother wanted for me and they made it happen.
“It’s not what Trump wants you to think,” she continues. “There were some bad people who took advantage of the good people, but they were not us. Most of the bad people were making money, stealing from the people the journey, making promises they did not keep.”
“I am not a bad hombre and neither was my mother,” she adds. “I was captured but not separated from the woman who told immigration people she was my mother. She took care of me for 2 years and worked everyday to help me find my brother. I still call her mom and she is still in danger of deportation all these years later.”
Maria made that journey in 2003. She was reunited with her brother, who had been adopted by a gay couple in the Palm Springs area and she eventually came out as a lesbian. She is working on getting her citizenship. “I love this country. My brother and I are lucky,” she tells the Los Angeles Blade.
Not everyone is as lucky. Last May, among the caravan of 225 asylum seekers fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to the Mexican border were more than 20 transgender women. Not all arrived in Tijuana.
“Some of us have been kidnapped, assaulted, and disappeared,” Ivan Mondragon, 30, who organized the transgender group, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Some have been forced into sex work. Here in Tijuana, one of our girls was assaulted, someone broke her rib and we haven’t seen her since she posted a video on Facebook after she was beaten.”
“I have friends who don’t have the opportunity to ask for asylum because they are already dead,” Shannel Smith, 28 of Honduras, told the Union-Tribune. She is fleeing gang members who killed her friend.
Roxanna Hernandez, 33, turned herself to ICE in San Diego seeking help—she had AIDS and was also fleeing violence as a trans woman. ICE took her into custody, shuffled her from facility to facility until she died alone on May 25 in New Mexico.
But asylum for LGBT people is not easy to get. Udoka Nweke, a 29-year-old gay Nigerian, has been in Adelanto Detention Center since Dec. 2016. Fleeing his country after being attacked by an anti-gay mob, Nweke’s asylum plea was denied and he attempted suicide. The Black LGBTQ Migrant Project has petitioned for his release on parole so he can access lifesaving medical treatments.
Concern is growing about the psychological and emotional well being of the children now in government detention camps.
Out Rep. Mark Takano is among the congressional representatives who travelled to border towns and detention and prisons to see what’s happening. To him, the incarceration and the tent cities dramatically remind him of the Japanese-American internment camps during World War Two.
“I am just taken by how much the history of Japanese-American internment has been made current,” Takano tells the Los Angeles Blade. The fact that the family separation policy has been suspended “only proves that the administration was lying when it said it was law and they were forced to do this.” In fact, ‘the law did not require any of the cruel policies that they were implementing.”
Takano says that when he visited the McAllen, Brownsville and Port Isabel detention centers, he met with about 15 women from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. “None of these women posed a danger to our country. None of these women even came close to images of MS 13, which this president likes to broad brush all immigrants with to justify his policies.”
At Port Isabel, “you see 15 foot high walls and fences topped off with coiled razor wire,” Takano said. “And, of course, that image reminded me of my mother and my father who were two and three years old they went to Heart Mountain in Wyoming and Tule Lake in California. And certainly two and three year olds did not pose a danger to our country. And the executive order that lead to the interment of Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants” and Trump’s cruelty policy “were motivated by an extreme political agenda that was also further propagated by a media and a press that repeated the exaggerated claims of politicians….Rounding up and interring all Japanese-Americans was discriminatory.”
The disproportionate response then and now is based on “some vague notion of national security, some vague notion we’re protecting the public. That is simply a fiction and untrue. And it’s causing great suffering,” he says. “This is an immoral policy,” the scapegoating, stigmatization, “the marginalization of a vulnerable minority whose due process rights were not respected.”
“How does this connect to LGBT people?” Takano recalls how during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, members of Congress called for the tattooing, quarantining, “the interment of LGBT people,” he said. “Medical science certainly negated those outrageous claims. We know that the calls to segregate and round up gays and to confine them was motivated by an anti-gay and homophobic animus.”
“[History] is repeating itself but it has gone to a new low with Donald Trump. When we were incarcerated [in Japanese-American internment camps], our families were intact. My parents were with me,” out actor George Takai told CNN. “But in this case, it’s come to a chilling low where babies are torn away from their mothers and placed in separate internment camps.”
Takai says Trump’s lies and inflammatory rhetoric are similar to what happened to Japanese-Americans in the 1940s. “We were characterized by the government, classified as ‘enemy aliens.’ We were neither,” he said, noting that many young Japanese Americans “rushed to their recruitments centers to volunteer to serve in the US military” right after Pearl Harbor but were denied.
But repeat a lie often enough “and it becomes a reality.” That’s what happened with “enemy aliens,” Takai said, recalling comments from the politically ambitious California Attorney General Earl Warren: “We have no reports of sabotage or spying or fifth column activities by Japanese Americans. And that is ominous because the Japanese are inscrutable. We can’t tell what they’re thinking so it would be prudent to lock them up before they do anything.”
“Taking that stereotype and grotesquely turning it against us—the big lie is happening with Donald Trump now, as well,” said Takai. “They are not murderers, rapists and drug dealers. They are literally fleeing for their lives and to call them infestations is absolutely grotesque.”
LGBT people should be concerned about Trump’s call to do away with immigration judges. “What are we going to do for LGBT people who are fleeing regimes that actually torture and kill them for being gay?,” asks Takano. “They don’t even get a hearing?” This anti-immigrant attitude harms us morally, to have this be done in our names as American citizens.”