On Friday, July 12, Vice President Mike Pence witnessed the crisis on our southern border. He saw detainees — detainees, not criminals — lying on thin mats on a concrete floor covered with tin foil blankets. He asked them if they were comfortable. He also saw and heard children crying.
Accompanied by border guards, some wearing face masks, Pence must have smelled what one reporter called “a horrendous stench” in a facility where nearly 400 men were housed in sweltering cages, cages so crowded they could not lie down. Many detainees “shouted to reporters that they had been held 40 days or longer and that they were hungry.”
Afterward, Pence earnestly tried to assure us. “What we saw today is a facility that is providing care that every American would be proud of.”
Memo to Mr. Pence: I am a 77-year old American, born in the USA. Yes, I have a birth certificate, a passport, and honorable discharge papers from the Marine Corps. I am not proud of what you are doing.
In fact, I am ashamed. What you, your boss and his administration are doing to these human beings disgusts me.
You have brought shame on yourselves and dishonor on our nation. The free nations of the world look at us in horror. Those who have long marveled at our democracy and the beauty and tenacity of our Constitution now look at what you, your boss, and your craven gaggle of Republican cowards have done to our national character with chagrin and dismay.
You have not only dishonored us, you have forfeited our nation’s trust abroad, as witnessed by the forthright email of the British ambassador. Who can blame our friends and allies across the world if, based on the hypocrisy, the cruelty, the lies emanating daily from the White House, they no longer respect us or depend on us?
And while you may ride your wave of power for the moment and, who knows, perhaps win re-election, you should realize that history seldom looks fondly on those who commit crimes against humanity, on those who place desperate, innocent people in cages and concentration camps, on those who separate children from their parents, on those who deny them adequate food, proper hygiene, on those who callously permit conditions that led to the death of five children, conditions that also caused a father to drown face-down in the Rio Grande river with his dead daughter’s limp arm draped over his body.
No, Mr. Pence, I am not proud of those facilities. I am ashamed and disgusted.
Perhaps the millions of dollars wasted on your boss’ ridiculous Fourth of July celebration might have been better spent on creating more humane facilities at the border.
History, if you read it, would provide a guide.
In the early 19th century, migrants debarked at a plain New York harbor. When the facilities were overrun with famine Irish and other immigrants between 1845 and 1852, the city built Castle Garden in 1855 to handle the increased volume of people. By 1890, this facility was being overrun, so Ellis Island opened Jan. 1, 1892, and processed 15 million immigrants over the next 62 years.
Clearly we need a better system at our southern border. Everyone realizes there is an immigration crisis there. If we solved the problem in 1855 and 1892, we should be able to do it now. But it requires thoughtful, compassionate, honest, bipartisan political planning with adequate resources to address the situation intelligently.
That means not pre-emptively declaring in racist tones that the people clamoring at our borders are “murderers, rapists, drug dealers.” Most of these people are trying to escape poverty and violence in their native lands. They journey to our borders for the same reasons the Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews and, yes, even Norwegians came in the 19th and early 20th centuries: a better life.
Sadly, many of these immigrants were treated with the same disdain and disrespect that we show to those at our southern border. “Punching down” is nothing new. But we did not incarcerate them like criminals and treat them more cruelly than the terrorists imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.
So, Mr. Pence, if you were truly concerned about the comfort of those people sleeping on concrete floors with a thin pad between them and the floor, why didn’t you join them for a week or two? Check it out for yourself. It’s not like you’re doing any good in Washington.
Perhaps if you had to spend time in one of these filthy cages — one of a few hundred men, without a change of clothing, without a shower or sanitary toilet facilities — you might not be so proud of your administration.
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, is the author of “Fellowship of Dust: Retracing the WWII Journey of Sergeant Frank Shaw.”