Gehrke: We are better than the inhumane detention of children. We need our elected officials to start reflecting Utah values.

Robert Gehrke

A 2-year-old living in a cage, cared for by two strangers, just girls themselves with the oldest being 15. The toddler, who wasn’t wearing a diaper and had snot smeared on his shirt, just wanted to be held all the time.

That’s one snapshot lawyers witnessed inside a detention center housing 250 children, infants and toddlers near El Paso.

A 4-year-old had matted hair because the 8-year-old caring for her couldn’t convince her to take a shower. Five migrant children have died in custody. Many of the children are sleeping on concrete floors.

This is who we are now.

A Justice Department lawyer argued before an appeals court last week that those concrete floors are safe and sanitary. This is the same lawyer who argued before incredulous judges — one who had spent time in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona as a child — that the children being imprisoned didn’t need soap or toothpaste.

“Cold all night long, lights on all night long, sleeping on concrete and you’ve got an aluminum foil blanket? I find it inconceivable that the government would say that that is safe and sanitary,” chided Judge William Fletcher.

The system is overwhelmed. Border Patrol has 15,000 children in its custody, 11,000 more than what is considered its maximum capacity. It is, without a doubt, an unprecedented challenge. Yet President Donald Trump and his immigration guru Stephen Miller seem intent on making it worse.

While there aren’t enough resources to provide soap for kids, the president was recently threatening to launch raids, rounding up and deporting millions of undocumented immigrants in the country, driving panic into families on the lookout for ICE agents descending on their communities.

Trump eventually backed down, giving Congress two weeks to solve a problem lawmakers have been unable to take action on for two decades or, in his words, “big deportation begins.”

The House planned to vote on a $4.5 billion emergency funding package to alleviate the crisis. Even if it gets approval from the Republican-controlled Senate, which is doubtful, the White House said Monday night Trump would veto the bill, in part because it didn’t include more money for his border wall — essentially using child hostages held in deplorable conditions as a bargaining chip.

Then you have Texas Republican Rep. Michael Burgess. “You know what? There’s not a lock on the door,” the congressman said Monday. “Any child is free to leave at any time, but they don’t. You know why? Because they are well taken care of.”

So if you see a 2-year-old toddling down the street with snot on his shirt and no diaper in West Texas, he probably just checked himself out of the detention center — except for the fact that there ARE locks on the doors.

All of this is so far beneath us, so inconsistent with Utah values we should be horrified. Sadly, Utah’s delegation doesn’t seem horrified. They seem, largely, indifferent.

All three Utah House Republicans — Reps. Rob Bishop, Chris Stewart and John Curtis — voted against the emergency border funding Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, Sen. Mike Lee was one of just eight senators voting against a Senate version of the funding bill.

Lee is also reportedly among a handful of Republicans whose opposition last week scuttled a hearing on a bill intended to fix U.S. asylum laws.

Curtis said this week that children should have soap and toothbrushes, but said the issue is more complex and “the burden of a solution rests squarely on the shoulders of Congress where both parties have failed.”

"Both parties” is an easy dodge, but perhaps it is the root of the problem — politicians more concerned about representing a party than representing values.

Utah has a reputation of being a conservative state that is accommodating, even progressive, on immigration issues and decidedly pro-family. Utah’s delegation should start reflecting that, too.

They should support — whether the president likes it or not — measures aimed at keeping families together, at ensuring children are not treated like stray dogs when they are detained, at providing a permanent fix for “dreamers” whose parents brought them to the United States as children, and opposing mass raids and deportations.

None of that solves the immigration problem. There will be time for fighting about the broader issues later. But these common-sense measures will preserve families, ensure children are treated humanely, and reflect our values not just as Utahns, but hopefully as human beings.


Eds Note: This story has been updated to add the delegation’s votes against the House and Senate emergency border security funding bills Tuesday and Wednesday.