America in 2018 is obviously not Nazi Germany, but one can be forgiven for seeing far too many echoes when it comes to our current child detention and family separation crisis. I am thinking especially of three things.
The first is the voice of a man identified as a Border Patrol agent in audio from an immigrant detention center released by ProPublica on Monday. As children scream and cry for the parents they have been torn from, the agent can be heard joking in Spanish, "Well, we have an orchestra here. What's missing is a conductor."
The second is this anecdote relayed to Texas Monthly last week by the director of an immigration nonprofit:
In other cases, we see no communication that the parent knows that their child is to be taken away. Instead, the officers say, "I'm going to take your child to get bathed." That's one we see again and again. "Your child needs to come with me for a bath." The child goes off, and in a half an hour, twenty minutes, the parent inquires, "Where is my five-year-old?" "Where's my seven-year-old?" "This is a long bath." And they say, "You won't be seeing your child again."
The third is Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's chipper demeanor during this exchange with CNN's Jeff Zeleny during her appearance at the White House press briefing on Monday:
The first two moments, with their enthusiastically callous functionaries, could easily serve as stories from a Nazi concentration camp (the bathing anecdote is so redolent of the gas chamber that it almost takes the breath away). And Nielsen is a perfect Aryan manager; you sense that she is sleeping quite soundly.
The thing that is so striking about all three items is not merely the horror they symbolize. It is how easy it was to get all of these people to play their fascistic roles. The Trump administration's family separation rule has not even been official policy for two months, and yet look at where we are already. The Border Patrol agent is totally unperturbed by the wrenching scenes playing out around him. The officers have sprung to action with a useful lie to ward off desperate parents. Nielsen, whom the New Yorker described in March as "more of an opportunist than an ideologue" and who has been looking to get back into Donald Trump's good graces, is playing her part—the white supremacist bureaucrat more concerned with office politics than basic morality—with seeming relish. They were all ready.
More importantly, the system they protect and serve—the American immigration system—was ready too. There have been no mass resignations reported, no apparent internal uprisings. Everyone needed just a little prodding. When a system can be tipped so easily into such extremes of cruelty, maybe it is time to get rid of that system.
Unfortunately, you need political will to do something like that, and our politicians are awful. Republicans are Republicans, so whatever. What of the Democrats?
The party is united in opposition to the family separation policy, though this is not a difficult position to hold. (When even Laura Bush, who knows a thing or two about ignoring atrocities, is speaking out against something, you know you're on safe ground.) Individual politicians, like Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Pramila Jayapal, have done an admirable job forcing a spotlight on the issue. And there are increasing calls for Nielsen to resign, with Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris leading the charge.
This is all fine. The policy needs to end. Nielsen needs to go. But if this is the best the Democrats can do, we are in deep trouble. The lesson of this scandal is not that the Trump administration is heartless and racist. Duh. It's that the immigration enforcement system is toxic at every level. It rewards the worst parts of human nature. It thrives on racism and white supremacy. It is not acceptable. (Neither is the broader prison and criminal justice system, but one thing at a time.) All of this is old news, but nothing has produced such revulsion as our current catastrophe, so we're at a clarifying moment.
Nielsen isn't the problem here; she is, as the old line goes, simply following orders. The family separation policy isn't even the real problem. The system is the problem.
Republicans are a white supremacist party. They are doing what they always do. And when Democrats confine themselves to decrying the people in charge of the system, they are doing what they always do: confirming their ultimate support for that system. This may be less overtly objectionable than what Trump is up to, but that doesn't make it right.
The system has produced shameful policies from every president who has overseen it, Republican and Democrat. The family separation crisis should be all the evidence needed that it is irreparable. But you won't hear any leading Democrat—even now—say we need to get rid of Border Patrol. You won't hear any leading Democrat with any real power say we need to dismantle ICE. You certainly won't hear any leading Democrat say we need to rethink the concept of "illegal immigration" altogether. Instead, Democrats want what they always want: what we have now, but nicer. Nicer prison guards. Nicer cops. Nicer jails for immigrants. This will not do. It all needs to come down. If our politicians won't accept that, they need to pay a price.