A recently discovered Facebook group made up of current and former Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents revealed what has been evident to many for a long time: there exists within CBP an entrenched culture of cruelty towards immigrants. The Facebook group had nearly 10,000 members, including current supervisors. Agency leaders have known of the group’s existence for at least three years. Our senior senator, Jon Tester, who has oversight of CBP, has yet to comment about any of this or speak about his knowledge of the culture within CBP; an agency he has embraced for past campaign wins.
As more and more details emerge about the online group and how CBP has managed immigration camps on the southern border, it should be evident that these problems are not merely an issue of budgetary constraints. This is cruelty as policy carried out by willing agents. It is not a lack of resources that make agents feed a Muslim detainee pork for six days straight. It is not a lack of resources that make agents force a man to hold up a sign saying “I like men” in an attempt to embarrass him or put him in danger. It’s not a lack of resources that make workers at these facilities sexually assault those in their care.
This is all targeted cruelty, and in this administration, the cruelty is the point. Just throwing more money at this problem will not fix it.
Senator Tester is the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Homeland Security and is in a unique position to do something about the behaviors and attitudes of Border Patrol. So what is stopping him? I find it hard to believe that the Facebook group making the news is the first time he’s heard about these behaviors. The family separation policy and conditions of the facilities became public knowledge more than a year ago, and John Kelly announced that family separations could be used as a deterrent for future immigration more than two years ago. And I’m sure people tried to inform Senator Tester of CBP’s behavior when he accepted the endorsement from the Border Patrol union.
Even if he was previously unaware of the situation, he should be acutely aware of it now. In his town halls, he says of the family separations: “If it isn’t against the law, it is certainly morally wrong.” But we need more than words, especially from someone who is in a position to make CBP alter its behavior. The speed of his responses and actions do not match the urgency of the harm we are doing to these fellow human beings.
During a recent town hall in Helena, in response to a question about immigration policy, Senator Tester mentioned Ellis Island in an attempt to defend aspects of our current immigration laws and enforcement. He said people were turned back even then. That sounds like his staffers do not understand immigration or they are failing to inform their boss, but only two percent of people were turned away at Ellis Island. That is not what’s happening at our southern border where CBP separates families and makes women drink from toilets. Doing immigration “the right way” in America has historically meant “the white way.” I have Italian ancestry. When Italians first started mass migration to the United States, they weren’t considered white yet and faced discrimination. They gained access to whiteness by playing their part in maintaining white supremacy. It was only then that they were deemed to be white enough to be uncontroversial immigrants.
Senator Tester has fallen into the trap of discussing immigration as though this crisis isn’t something that we’ve created. We don’t need to improve these camps. Talking as though we need detention camps for asylum seekers plays into the hands of White House advisors like Stephen Miller and alt-right leaders like Richard Spencer. We need to close the camps and stop the cruelty at our border. Jon Tester must take action against CBP, or he is complicit in the suffering they cause.