Migrant detention centres, or 'concentration camps', in the US make the world more dangerous for everyone.

Standing in line in a Starbucks in Istanbul, my phone burps out a notification from National Public Radio: “DHS Inspector General Finds ‘Dangerous Overcrowding’ in Border Patrol Facilities.” 

Then it’s my turn at the register, where I order hot coffee and cold milk, an unusual request in a coffee culture where most milk is poured steamed.  

Cold milk in coffee and lots of milk is an odd American habit, one that makes me stand out from Istanbul’s usual Starbucks’ orders. (Starbucks is better here than in the United States, by a mile). 

My cold milk request wasn’t the only thing setting me apart from my fellow customers. Unlike them, I was the only one who could be held accountable as a citizen for the ongoing crimes against humanity unfolding on my phone on July 3, 2019, the eve of Independence Day, which marks the 1776 drafting of the Declaration of Independence of the “United States” breaking away from the United Kingdom. 

2019 is a time when that country, my country, is running concentration camps, even though not all headlines call them “concentration camp.” US President Donald Trump’s immigration policies have led to the establishment of concentration camps run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), whose officers have been ordered to warehouse children separated from the parents, who are boxed into other concentration camps. These officers are following orders, and have Trump’s full endorsement. 

The people living for months in crowded, fetid conditions are asylum seekers, most of them fleeing Central American countries, where gang violence threatens their lives or the lives of the children. 

Just like the adults, these children, some of them undernourished toddlers, are held in “hielera” or “ice boxes,” the slang the asylum seekers use for the buildings that house them, which are kept at cold temperatures and where the lights are always on. 

The list of abuses or evidence of neglect in these hieleras reported by lawyers and doctors and politicians, witnessed firsthand, is extensive. Violations of both US federal law and US obligations to international treaties regarding the treatment of asylum seekers. 

A Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report released this week said inspectors “observed serious overcrowding and prolonged detention of unaccompanied alien children (UACs), 4 families, and single adults that require immediate attention.” 

Meanwhile, Congress has approved billions of dollars in funding for Trump’s concentration camps, with Democrats failing to secure new provisions for humanitarian aid

The influx of asylum seekers has strained CBP capacity, but so has Trump’s policy of refusing to release asylum seekers to return for court dates later in the asylum process. Rather, the duration of these detentions is effectively indefinite. 

“Our Border Patrol people are not hospital workers, doctors or nurses. The Democrats bad Immigration Laws, which could be easily fixed, are the problem. Great job by Border Patrol, above and beyond. Many of these illegals aliens are living far better now than where they came from, and in far safer conditions...,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday, not explicitly denying bad conditions but blaming Democrats for them. 

Living in America, surrounded by other Americans, the responsibility for these horrors is distributed between strangers standing around in a Starbucks line. There is the experience of collective, unspoken guilt we feel, some of us, at least, with Trump. There is also an urge to stop, and if possible, punish, crimes carried out by Trump’s campaign or administration. 

Children separated from their parents will grow up one day and remember what the United States did to them. They will remember where they were on July 4th for the rest of their lives. Americans will remember Trump’s concentration camps in a different way, but it is not clear yet whether, in 2020, they will endorse them or reject them. 

With the 2020 elections comes closer with every passing second, even as you read this sentence, a pivot in history looms like the ground beneath a plane descending with broken landing gear.

Turkish people, however, will not mark this July 4th as anything more than Thursday. These are tragedies unfolding on the Western Hemisphere. Central America and the US relationship to it is about as alien a topic of conversation here as the concept of the “Balkans” would be in the US. Indeed, Turkey has outshone the U.S. in its ability to host millions of Syrian refugees, when the US isn’t able to handle the entry of just a few thousand desperate people fleeing for their lives. 

Whatever happens in 2020, it will be difficult for Americans to forgive each other, even if they can oust Trump from office. There is bad news about Trump’s polling numbers in crucial swing states he won in 2016. That year may have represented a perfect storm of factors that propelled Trump to the presidency, where he was able to lose the popular vote but win the electoral college. 

If he wins again in 2020, however, the consequences for the whole world could be dire. Americans would no longer be able to claim that electing Trump was an aberration, but somewhat indicative of something more profound, an indelible flaw in the country’s character. 

Right now, the United States is setting an example for the world that countries can, if they want, establish concentration camps for migrants. Australia already has. Refugees languish on Lesbos, in Greece, in squalid, dangerous conditions. Young migrants marooned there have killed themselves or tried, faced with such enormous isolation and despair. 

African asylum seekers in Libya find themselves sold as slaves. Asylum seekers and migrants in the US wind up as an invaluable business opportunity, too, with private prisons and prison services contractors profiting from the detention. 

Climate change threatens to increase the number of people fleeing tropical zones rendered uninhabitable by the process. If Americans vote for concentration camps in 2020, it will give other world powers license to establish their own now and in the future. 

What the world needs is an American president who is at least aware that human suffering is not just a means to an end, but something deserving of resolution, or at least sincere attempts to reduce it. 

Trump proudly displays a lack of concern for the suffering of others, and brands himself as a president who “gets tough,” no matter what his critics or the “fake news” say. 

Until November 2020, and beyond, those will be Trump’s refrains. 

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