Border Policies from Hell

Who was not rightly moved by the photograph of a Salvadoran father and his daughter drowned and laying on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande River?The father, Óscar Martínez Ramírez, was only 25 years old and his daughter, Valeria, was almost 2, with her dainty and diminutive white-arm draped over her father’s nape, both faced down in the muddy river bank—and were both yet more unnecessary U.S.-Mexican borderland deaths as both Democrats and Republicans continue debating how to deal with our so-called “Southern Border Crisis”.

The photo was taken by Mexican photo-journalist, Julia Le Duc for the Mexican newspaper, La Jornada,but making the Associated Press (AP) circuit. It is a shocking and unsettling photo—reflecting a something, which should not be. The young man’s wet-black t-shirt pulled up nearly over his head and above his daughter’s head, his shorts more like swim trunks. And comparable to all photos of the newly dead, the father-daughter appeared to be just resting along the river bank—as if exhausted from an arduous swim, a momentary repose perhaps—but nonetheless, reflecting the eternal in their deaths, a disquieting stillness, never to awaken in their final embrace.

How much more can the American people accept about our border policies from hell? And this Trump Administration separating children from their parents and holding them in unconscionable conditions in less than adequate border facilities—how much more?

Last year, there were almost three-hundred borderland deaths.Moreover, it was only a month ago, we learned from various news reports that a sixth child had diedat the US-Mexico border. And instead of ameliorating the situation, the Trump Administration will be making it worse if current borderland policies endure by cutting off a significant portion of U.S. development aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. This will have the opposite effect on these countries than as an intended foreign policy punitive measure. From a recent Congressional Research Service reportin March, 2019, it is clear the Trump Administration is trending to limit the amount of U.S. aid to Latin America and the Caribbean compared with previous administrations. Contrary to Trump, development aid to Central America may staunch the flow of migration through funding for ceasing gang violence, alleviating food insecurity, providing viable labor opportunities, and reducing poverty.

For one, immigration problems are not limited to the U.S.-Mexican border. More people from foreign countries are overstaying their visasthrough airport arrivals in general than coming to the U.S. southern borderlands. This has been true for the last several years. In a 2017 studyin the Journal on Migration and Human Security, the authors state: “In 2014, about 4.5 million US residents, or 32 percent of the total undocumented population, were overstays” and that “Overstays accounted for about two-thirds (66 percent) of those who arrived (i.e. joined the undocumented population) in 2014”.According to a Department of Homeland Security report, there were a total of 701,900 overstay events in 2017. Moreover, in general, undocumented migrants in the United States have steadily declined over the last few years. And beyond Trump’s pomposity, Mexicohas actually done quite a lot in detaining Central Americans and also by providing them with humanitarian visas to stay in Mexico.

While certainly there is a southern borderland crisis, because according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics, the number of apprehended families along the Southwest U.S.-Mexico border had increased by 463% from last year. Even so, the U.S. detention facilities at the border are wholly inadequate for processing new immigrants, and especially neglectful for young child care. Columbia University Law Professor and Director of Columbia’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, Elora Mukherjee, reported on the deplorable conditions of children held in U.S. custody at the Clint Facility in Texas. As Professor Mukherjee explained: “In twelve years representing immigrant children in detention, I have never seen such degradation and inhumanity. Children were dirty, they were scared, and they were hungry.”

As a result of the outcry from such reports about inhumane conditions for migrant children and families at U.S. detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Acting Head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB), John Sanders, resigned on Tuesday, June 25th.

In my view, our U.S.-Mexico border policies begin with President Donald J. Trump himself and his racist rhetoric. Some people, such as U.S Border Patrol officers, are forced to carry out the executive orders of their bosses, however, wrongly conceived. And some realize such directives may be morally wrong.

The anthropologist, Marilyn Strathern (1988), in her well-regarded book, The Gender of the Gift, described “social agency” this way: “Persons or things may be transferred as ‘standing for’ (in our terms) parts of persons. This construction thus produces objects (the person as a ‘part’ of a person—him or herself or another) which can circulate between persons and mediate their relationship.” In other words, our infernal U.S. border policies are an extension of President Trump’s xenophobic bombast against migrants and immigrants, and no less inflammatory than his remarks following the unfortunate incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

Thus, in my opinion, Trump’s hateful speech about Central American migrants, about undocumented immigrants, about foreigners, those from “sh**hole” countries—all have negative cascading effects in general. Children and others are dying at the U.S.-Mexican border because the Trump Administration may want such tragedies to resonate as deterrents for those who wishing to cross and/or seek asylum in the United States. According to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, titled: “In the Freezer: Abusive Conditions for Women and Children in U.S. Immigration Holding Cells”, facilities at the border are needlessly dangerous. According the report: “…We found that conditions in holding cells at the southern border are often poor and in several critical respects identical to those previously found by US courts to be in violation of CBP’s [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] obligations and prior commitments.”

The holding cells are made of concrete and those detained are given Mylar blankets (a foil often used for marathon runners following their runs), in rare cases a mat. The temperatures are set incredibly low and this is why they are known as “freezers” (hieleras). Of those interviewed, none were given soap, toothpaste, or toothbrushes, and none were allowed to shower for days. The conditions were indisputably unsanitary and extremely stressful to children. More so, Trump officials see nothing wrong with such reprehensible detention conditions as one Trump lawyer justified to Judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9thCircuit.

In many cases, immigrant detainees are held for many days, in traumatic settings, allowing for immunity weakness and children falling ill, particularly from parental separations. As Human Rights Watch (2018) described: “In some cases, we heard that immigration agents attempted to separate mothers and young children. For instance, Miriam F. told us that after she went to the border post in El Paso, Texas, to request asylum in early September 2017: ‘They first told me they were going to separate me and my daughter. They also said this to the other mothers. We all began to cry. We said that our children were still very small. My daughter is six years old’.”

The claims of Human Rights Watch have been supported by an ACLU 2018 reportdocumenting abuse and maltreatment of child immigrants in U.S. custody. In psychological terms, according to Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, separating children from mothers, and/or families, causes conditions of “child neglect”, exacerbating possibilities of mental health problems into adulthood as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and increasing risks for violent behavior.

As a summary of the Trump Administration’s child detention at U.S. southern border, I leave you with a poem from my forthcoming poetry book, Epochal Reckonings. In it, I wrote about what conditions might be like for a child in U.S. detention along the Southwestern border:


A room lit by blazing glaring fluorescent lights…

Cold and nondescript…

A detention facility in El Norte…

The wee hours of a bleak morning…


The wailing voice of a small child…


Only 3 or 4…

Wailing inconsolably…

Her tiny fists pounding the small table…

A uniformed woman murmuring….


Sliding over colouring books and a rainbow of crayons…

To the little pounding hands…

And the little hands shoving them away…


Without care…


On a shelf nearby…

Children’s books…

Colourful books…

Lettered child blocks…

Wooden, bright letters…

Some stuffed dolls…

A Winnie the Pooh…

A Mickey Mouse…

A Donald Duck…

“The Donald” Duck’s eyes chewed out…

Cartoon arched blue eyes…

With irises gone…

Face chewed up…

With a perfect blue suit…

And a perfect blue hat…

Its yellow bill with white stuffing coming out…


A child’s face in agony…

Red from crying…

Brown from the sun…

Sweaty strands of black hair…

Criss-crossing the small forehead…

An “Eco por un Grito” moderno…

A child’s face from David Alfaro Siqueiros…

Crying and wailing…

And inflating, larger and larger…

A child’s mouth…

Becoming a great chasm of wailing…


Filling the room…

In eternal absence…

More articles by:

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. He has a PhD from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice (2015).

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