On December 8, 2018, seven-year-old Jakeli Caal, a Guatemalan refugee who endured a grueling journey with her father to seek asylum in the U.S., died at a children’s hospital in El Paso after awaiting transport by bus to a border-patrol station in New Mexico. Sixteen days later, on Christmas eve, eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo died while in U.S. custody after displaying flu-like symptoms and being held for observation for just ninety minutes at a local hospital. Jakeli and Felipe—and the unimaginable grief and trauma their families have suffered–have become tragic symbols for the legions of refugees who continue every day to suffer the indignities and cruelty of Donald Trump’s morally indefensible zero-tolerance immigration policy.
Does anyone believe that the deaths of Jakeli and Felipe were inevitable? I certainly do not. I have no doubt that their deaths could have been prevented—if only. If only the system had not been stretched to the limit by a policy designed to punish rather than aid. If only there had been better training of border employees or more medical staff on the ground. If only there had been more empathy among those charged with the daily management of the facilities where refugees are being held. If only there had been more respect for the humanity of desperate families unfairly maligned and demonized as criminals by government officials at the highest levels.
There may be uncertainty and unanswered questions about the deaths of Jakeli and Felipe. There should be no uncertainty about who is responsible for the tragedy. It is certainly not the families, whom Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had the audacity to blame for embarking on their desperate journeys to save the lives of their children from violence and poverty. The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the cynical architects of the policy—Donald Trump, former attorney general Jeff Sessions, and Trump whisperer Stephen Miller.
Sadly, zero-tolerance and the separation of refugee children from their families are not one-off examples of the cruelty and harm this administration is inflicting. There are a host of other Trump-era policies that seem intentionally designed to create a climate of uncertainty and fear across the country—and even across the world. Consider these:
- the partial Muslim travel ban that denies the reunification of families and prevents deserving students, business people, and artists from contributing their talents and experience to enrich our society
- the reinstatement of the global gag rule that denies the neediest women in developing nations the reproductive health services they so desperately need, resulting in unnecessary injury and death
- the signing of a law that weakens the firearms background- check system and undermines enforcement of the law that prohibits individuals with serious mental illness from possessing firearms
- the reinterpretation of a law that now makes it easier for fugitives to purchase and possess firearms
- the blocking of commonsense policy for legalizing the status of 800,000 Dreamers
- the thirty-five-day federal government shut down that caused untold financial hardship for 800,000 federal workers
- the cancellation of support for the United Nations Palestinian fund, which provided funds for secular education
- the holding back of funds specifically intended to publicize the Affordable Care Act and the resulting decrease in the numbers of insured.
- the halting of rules limiting power plants from dumping toxins in waterways and the resultant health risks
- the threat of immigration enforcement in Latino communities and the dissemination of anti-immigrant rhetoric that make immigrant survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault fearful of contacting law enforcement for help.
As citizens of what we hope is a just society, isn’t it our duty to speak out and to declare zero tolerance for the policies and conditions that led to the deaths of Jakeli and Felipe? When will we say “no more” to the suffering inflicted on so many nameless and innocent people by a host of Trump-era policies and executive orders?
We are better than this. It is time to declare that we will no longer be silent as our government perpetrates trauma and fear in our name.
When Cruelty Is the Message
In this video, reporter Adam Serwer posits that for Donald Trump and his base “cruelty is the point” and that it’s Trump’s penchant for reveling in insults and cruelty toward those his supporters hate and fear that sustains the unbreakable bond between the president and his most ardent supporters.
“Trump Thrives on Cruelty” is part of The Atlantic’s ongoing, provocative video series called “The Atlantic Argument.”