Callousness toward migrants not just ‘unfortunate’

Shoe barbed wire
A shoe caught in barbed wire at “the wall” at the Tijuana/California border.

“That’s unfortunate.”

I heard that phrase twice in one afternoon as an observer in San Diego Immigration Court — first from a judge, and later from an ICE officer outside the courtrooms where asylum hearings take place.

The first came during a hearing of a 32-year-old Guatemalan woman and her 15-year-old daughter. The woman told the judge she feared for her daughter’s safety if they were sent back to Mexico, and that on some days there, they went without food.

“That’s unfortunate,” the judge said.

I heard the phrase again during a conversation with an ICE officer that started out pleasantly enough but quickly turned.

The officer, who described himself as part of a “demonized” group, was telling me that the migrants in U.S. detention centers are well cared for, and that the media was putting out false information about how they are treated.

I reminded him that migrants, including several children, have died in those camps, and others have contracted mumps, scabies and lice, and are suffering severe psychological trauma. I reminded him of the video of Vice President Pence’s visit to a center where dozens of men were stuffed into an overcrowded cage.

If I had been more calm, I would have reminded him that a government lawyer tried to convince Court of Appeals judges that migrant children didn’t need toothbrushes, soap or towels under the government’s view of “safe and sanitary” conditions.

The agent wasn’t swayed. “It’s unfortunate” that people have died, he said, insisting that the U.S. is the best country in the world, that he and other immigration officers uphold the law and must report any abuses or else face prosecution.

If I ever wonder again what it’s like to justify one’s beliefs or career choice with lies and willful ignorance, I need only conjure that ICE agent’s face.

I wonder now if “It’s unfortunate” is a new phrase, or a tried-and-true psychological trick used by people of power and privilege to dismiss humanitarian crises unfolding in front of them. Perhaps they are so jaded by the tragedies and suffering they see every day, the terrified people in front of them are mere abstractions, not human beings.

If that’s the case, that’s beyond “unfortunate.”

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