Chicago • To those of us who have been following reports of the inhumane ways immigrants have been treated along the southern border, it comes as no shock that there’s a Facebook group in which U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents made puerile jokes about the deaths of migrants, suggested how to humiliate Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility and posted a vulgar sexual illustration targeting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Considering that nearly 1,500 allegations of sexual abuse in immigration detention settings involving employees of the Department of Homeland Security were reported between 2012 and March 2018 — a figure that is surely undercounted, given the power imbalance between victims and aggressors — this dehumanizing behavior shouldn’t come as any surprise.
In a just world, millions of Americans would be protesting in the streets to free the children, women and families detained at the border who are, according to news reports, being denied access to medical care and basic supplies like soap, water and adequate food.
The same goes for the immigrants currently in detention centers in the interior of the country who are having their human rights violated. Lifesaving medicine is being withheld, and pregnant women have been forced to give birth in shackles. The list of barbarities goes on and on. But these people, who are marginalized on the edges of society, go largely unchampioned.
Which makes me wonder who will stand up for me, or my dad, mother, aunt or two cousins, should we find ourselves in the crosshairs of this country's deportation machine even though we are all U.S. citizens.
It's not a thought experiment.
The number of U.S. citizens who had encounters with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — meaning that they were interviewed, screened and given a determination about whether they are lawfully present or not — rose sharply from 5,940 in 2016 to 27,540 in 2018.
This is according to a new analysis of Immigration and Customs Enforcement data by the American Immigration Council. The AIC had to sue ICE in order to get the figures.
"And we think this number is undercounted because there is an 'unknown' category [in the ICE data set] and this could be more U.S. citizens who were swept up in removal actions because they 'appear deportable,'" said Emily Ryo, professor of law and sociology at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and a co-author of the analysis, during a press briefing.
We could spend a lot of time unpacking the notion that ICE agents appear to have such latitude and poor training in their work that they seemingly rely on looks to determine who they should approach. Instead, let me highlight a few other key findings:
• ICE encountered and arrested proportionally more women during the beginning of the Trump administration than during the last part of the Obama administration. In many cases, these were “collateral” arrests, where the women just happened to be present when someone else was being targeted by ICE.
• Between January 2016 and September 2018, more than 85% of people deported by ICE had either no criminal convictions or no convictions for crimes classified as violent or serious.
• ICE enforcement actions are disproportionately concentrated in certain parts of the country. From 2016 to 2018, custodial arrests increased 118% in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, 124% in Buffalo, New York, and 151% in Philadelphia.
Taken all together, a picture emerges of an agency that seems to disregard the civil liberties of people who "look" deportable and is spending precious federal resources in a scattershot manner with no prioritization for the so-called "bad hombres" that President Trump has said he wants to get out of the country.
These are our tax dollars at work — separating mothers and fathers from their children and families far from the southern border, even if they have no criminal history. (And for the umpteenth time, residing in the country without permission is a civil, not a criminal, violation.)
Call your representative in Congress. Tweet at them, post on their Facebook page or fax them.
However you want to do it, reach out and ask them why we're spending so much of our money on ripping parents and family members with roots in their communities away from their U.S.-citizen children instead of prioritizing violent criminals.
This crisis may be happening quietly and sometimes far from the border, but it's no less a humanitarian crisis for the people who are scarred by it.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.