Politics

Who Counts at the Border?

From the stillbirth to the hundreds of abused children, the news this week has been horrifying.

The border
The U.S.-Mexico border fencing, with the U.S. side on the left and the Mexico side on right, as seen from Santa Teresa Station in Sunland Park, N.M., on Saturday, Feb. 23.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool/Getty Images

A 24-year-old Honduran woman went into early labor and delivered a stillborn baby while she was in custody at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in South Texas last week. The official joint statement from ICE and Customs and Border Protection, released Monday by the Department of Homeland Security, reports that the woman, “whose name and identifying details are being withheld in order to protect her privacy,” was six months pregnant when she was apprehended on Feb. 18 by U.S. Border Patrol near Hidalgo, Texas. The agencies further indicate that she was taken to a hospital, given two medical screenings, and then cleared for release on Feb. 21. The woman was then transferred to ICE custody on Feb. 22, where she was supposed to be processed for release. It’s not clear why she was to be released, though there had to be a reason, given that in 2017, the Trump administration changed the prior policy of presumptive release for pregnant women to a policy wherein they are treated like all other detainees, meaning they’d be processed on a case-by-case basis.

The DHS joint statement also noted that on the evening of Feb. 22, while being processed for release by ICE, the woman began complaining of abdominal pains. EMS was called, though she “went into premature labor, at 27 weeks pregnant, and delivered an unresponsive male infant. ICE Health Service Corps initiated CPR, and EMS transported them both to the Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen, Texas, where the infant was later pronounced dead.” DHS would further like to note that they are transparent in the extreme, as they write, “Although for investigative and reporting purposes, a stillbirth is not considered an in-custody death, ICE and CBP officials are proactively disclosing the details of this tragic event to be transparent with Congress, the media and the public.”

The stillbirth happened Friday. On Tuesday morning, Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, publicly released internal documents (published in full by Axios) from the Department of Health and Human Services detailing thousands of reports of sexual abuse visited on minor migrants in U.S. custody. That would work out to, on average, one sexual assault by HHS staff on an unaccompanied minor per week. (The reports of abuse reach back to the Obama Administration, too.)

It is unclear what we can do with these crimes beyond count them. We certainly can’t understand them. Just last week, a 45-year-old Mexican died in CBP custody in McAllen, Texas. An 8-year-old Guatemalan boy, Felipe Gómez Alonso, died Christmas Eve in DHS custody, where he had been held for six days with his dad. Three weeks before that, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl, Jakelin Caal Maquin, also died in Border Patrol custody.

Scott Lloyd led HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement through its catastrophic period of family separation, before he failed upward into a job at the HHS office for faith initiatives. On Tuesday, Lloyd testified before the House Judiciary Committee, where he was be questioned about the fact that he had ignored warnings from career HHS staffer Jonathan White about the profound health risks of separating migrant children from their parents. White said Lloyd—who possessed no previous experience overseeing care for migrants—assured him the policy would not be enacted even as it went forward. Under oath Tuesday, Lloyd admitted that he failed to pass on these warnings from career experts about how family separation would cause lasting trauma in children. He also testified that ORR only began tracking lost children in the summer of 2018, months after the family separations had begun. That’s another subset of lives at the border that the government didn’t bother to count “for investigative and reporting purposes,” it would seem.

Last week, Trump’s Justice Department advised a federal judge that children separated from their families at the border under a then-secret, now-known “zero tolerance” policy—children who number in the thousands according to the DOJ’s own Inspector General—are not actually worth counting at all. At a hearing to determine whether the government was responsible for finding and reuniting children removed from their families prior to an ongoing class action suit, a Justice Department lawyer told Judge Dana Sabraw that parents whose children had been taken from them prior to the formal zero tolerance policy would have to file their suits elsewhere. “We’re not saying that they can’t be reunified,” he told the judge. “We’re saying that it’s just not part of the class the court certified, it’s not part of this case. And if there are folks in this category who want to seek relief, there are courts, there are informal channels available to do that.” To reiterate, not only does DHS not “count” stillborn babies as “in-custody” deaths in their data, they also don’t appear to count the live ones they have taken and then misplaced. They agree only to an accounting when forced to do so in litigation.

Every time this administration is caught doing something deplorable at the border, it initially claims not to be doing it. Then it claims to have no records of this, and then it claims that even if this is happening, it somehow doesn’t count. That is how they manage to enact deplorable policies at the border: by assuming that entire classes of humans—migrant families, separated children, abused teenagers, pregnant mothers, and now stillborn babies, don’t count enough to even warrant being literally counted at all. They don’t keep records, and they admit to not keeping records, because some stillborn babies matter more than others, and some do not evidently matter at all.