- John Carlos Freyinvestigative reporter and PBS NewsHour special correspondent, author of Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border.
More than a week after lawmakers flocked to the U.S.-Mexico border to observe the horrible treatment of refugee children and families in immigration jails, reports of unsafe and unsanitary conditions for asylum seekers are continuing. In Clint, Texas, the Border Patrol station that garnered international attention for jailing hundreds of migrant children without access to sufficient food, water, beds or medical care now has a spreading outbreak of scabies, shingles and chickenpox, according to border agents. In Yuma, Arizona, NBC reports that jailed migrant children have been subjected to mistreatment and sexual violence. We speak with prize-winning author John Carlos Frey, whose new book, “Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border,” examines the history of U.S. immigration policies, looking at how both Democrats and Republicans laid the groundwork for the deadly system we have today.
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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: More than a week after lawmakers flocked to the U.S.-Mexico border to observe the horrible treatment of refugee children and families in immigration jails, reports of unsafe and unsanitary conditions for asylum seekers are continuing.
In Clint, Texas, the Border Patrol station that garnered international attention for jailing hundreds of migrant children without access to sufficient food, water, beds or medical care now has a spreading outbreak of scabies, shingles and chicken pox, according to border agents. The New York Times and the El Paso Times report that one staffer says he was ordered to remove beds from the jail to make more space in the overcrowded cells.
Meanwhile, NBC reports that migrant children jailed in Yuma, Arizona, have been subjected to mistreatment and sexual violence. In nearly 30 accounts collected by the Department of Health and Human Services case managers, children complained of hunger, having to sleep on concrete floors or outside, and lack of access to basic sanitation. A 15-year-old girl said an officer groped her underneath her clothing during what was supposed to be a routine pat-down, and then joked around with other agents during the ordeal.
Despite growing outrage from lawmakers, experts on child welfare and the public, the Trump administration has dismissed reports of abuse. President Trump said migrants were, quote, “very happy,” while acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan called such accounts “unsubstantiated.” House Democrats have called on McAleenan to testify about the conditions faced by jailed migrants.
AMY GOODMAN: Some are describing the conditions at the border as symptoms of a broken system, but others say this is exactly how U.S. immigration policies were designed to work. This is Texas state Representative Diego Bernal after visiting Border Patrol stations in El Paso last week.
REP. DIEGO BERNAL: People are saying that Trump’s policies have failed. That’s a phrase that people use a lot. And I disagree. I think they’re working exactly the way they’re supposed to. I think that everything that we’re saying and that’s happened is on purpose, that it’s deliberate, that it is the product of decisions that have been made, outcomes that have been anticipated, situations that were predicted. And this is exactly what they want.
AMY GOODMAN: Texas state Representative Diego Bernal.
Well, we turn now to a book that examines the history of U.S. immigration policies, looking at how both Democrats and Republicans laid the groundwork for the deadly system we have today. Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border tracks the increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border over more than three decades, arguing the borderlands have become a war zone.
Author and journalist John Carlos Frey writes in his new book, “We are using a militaristic approach against an enemy that does not exist. As long as the push to fortify the border continues, as seems likely—no politician has yet challenged the assumed need for border security—the human costs will continue to accumulate,” he writes.
John Carlos Frey joins us now in our New York studio. He’s a five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter and PBS NewsHour special correspondent, has reported extensively on immigration for more than a decade.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you in the studio.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: It’s great to be here. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So, congratulations on your new book. I mean, the stories of what’s happening on the border are terrifying.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You have President Trump saying that the jailed migrants are, quote, “very happy.” And now you have this report, by border agents themselves, of the outbreak of scabies, chickenpox, shingles in the child jail at Clint. Can you talk about the overall picture there?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: It’s common. I even hate to say that out loud. This is the way that we treat migrants. This is policy. The facilities that we keep migrants in are not equipped to handle that large of a population. There are no beds in these facilities. There are no showers. There’s no medical staff. There’s no cafeteria. That’s how we treat them.
And this is on purpose. This policy has been in place for almost 20 years now, a policy of deterrence. If you come and you visit our jails, if you happen to be arrested and you go through the processing here, we want to rough you up. We want you to remember that if you come to the United States, you are not welcome. And we want that message to get all the way back to your home country so that other people do not attempt it. This idea of how children are being treated is also policy. This inhumane treatment of children is to send a message back to families, saying, “Don’t bring them. Don’t bring your kids, because they’re not going to be treated well.” And that is the deterrence strategy. I think the administration has even admitted so.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you, John Carlos: What about the role of Mexico in all of this? Now, obviously, there have been battles back and forth between the Mexican government and the various U.S. administrations about immigration policy, but there was a lot of expectation with the new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that things would change. And what’s your sense of what has happened as a result and since López Obrador came into office?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Yeah, I know that the administration has put financial pressure on Mexico, with the threat of tariffs, if they didn’t absorb this large population. But I don’t think Mexico can, either. We’re talking about a country, for the most part, that’s not welcoming, as well. It’s a profiteer off of the migration that goes through. Cartels extort these people. Women are raped on the journey. One of the reasons for the caravans that had formed starting last year was for safety, to get through Mexico.
So, migrants don’t want to stay. So, even though Trump says, “Keep these people. Don’t let them come all the way to the border,” most people, if they’re coming from Central America, don’t want to stop in Mexico. They want to get through Mexico to the U.S. border. Migrants are allowed to choose where they want to go. We are not supposed to tell them where they can migrate to. If they’re desperate, human rights advocates and charters basically say migrants are free to go where they choose.
AMY GOODMAN: You have, last week, yet another person dies in U.S. immigration custody. A Nicaraguan man became the 12th person to die in the custody of U.S. immigration authorities since September. You have something like six children have died in the last year. Before last year, a child didn’t die in U.S. immigration custody in over a decade. Trump’s immigration crackdown has also led to rapidly degrading and unsafe conditions for migrants forced to stay in Mexico, Reuters reporting migrants are being held without adequate food, water, healthcare for weeks on end in Mexican immigration jail without being provided information on their cases. The challenging of the “Remain in Mexico” policy that the Trump administration has put into place. Others challenging it, saying it’s illegal—
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —to say no at the border. Democracy Now! was there on the border as people who—mother and a tiny daughter from Guatemala are left to stay in the hot baking sun, day after day after day, until, finally, people who are doing it—trying to do it the legal way, through a legal port of entry, realize that they may not survive, and so then they go a different route, and perhaps they try to swim. Some of them die while swimming.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: I have not seen it like this before. I have not seen us close the door to the degree that we have. I don’t think that the administration—and I’m going to say Republicans in Congress, for that matter—really care about these individuals. They’re being portrayed as invaders. I think Trump has referred to them as an “infestation.” So, if that’s who they are, then why even bother giving them any chance at asylum?
We have agreements with Mexico on how we’re going to treat people who are coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. It is supposed to be humane. They are allowed to make a claim of asylum. We are supposed to bring them in. And they’re supposed to wait for their day in court. That’s the process. The courts are supposed to adjudicate the cases, not leaving them there in Mexico.
I mean, if you can imagine making the decision to come from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border, out of desperation, getting to the border and then being told to wait for a few months. These people don’t have jobs. They don’t have money. They don’t know people in Mexico. They’re left to fend for themselves. There are shelters now popping up, but there’s certainly not enough to handle this size of a population.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you talk about shelters. In your book, you deal with the tremendous expansion of this detention apparatus, this industry that’s developed. You mentioned that back in 1990 Border and Customs had about a budget of about $260 million. Today it’s up to $4 billion.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A 16-fold increase in the budget of containing and corralling and guarding our borders, especially the southern border.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Congress just appropriated $4.6 billion more to handle the mass population. Seventy-five percent of all our detention facilities in the United States are privately run. Children cost $750 a day to house. I don’t know what that cost is when we have federal attorneys arguing that they don’t even have toothbrushes and soap. So, somebody is profiting here. About 10 years ago, we had 5,000 people incarcerated, immigrants. Today we have—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You’re saying $750 a day. So, if a child is in detention—
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Correct.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —for 10 days, the government has spent $7,500, which is about the cost of a year of a college education at a public university, or some public universities, these days.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Right. When we started to see an influx of children last year, The New York Times did an exposé and said that the defense contractors who are housing the children in converted Walmarts and in these warehouses made a billion dollars, a contract worth a billion dollars to house children. This is profit. We want these people to come here. We want to incarcerate them. We want to profit off of them. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. About 10 years ago, we had 5,000 immigrants in detention facilities. Today we have over 50,000. We are the largest jailers of immigrants in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: So, your thoughts on New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was among those who did not vote for that $4.6 billion to go to the border? She recently came under fire for comments made in an Instagram video in which she called immigrant prisons concentration camps.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border. And that is exactly what they are. They are concentration camps.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, later defending her remarks, tweeting, “And for the shrieking Republicans who don’t know the difference: concentration camps are not the same as death camps. Concentration camps are considered by experts as 'the mass detention of civilians without trial.' And that’s exactly what this administration is doing.” And yesterday in the Capitol, you had 18 Jewish activists shoring up her comments, saying, “Never again means never again.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Where are the voices? Where are the leaders? I mean, if you start to see children getting sick, if you start to see children dying, if these images of children sleeping on concrete floors, being separated from their parents—if lawmakers aren’t willing to speak up, we’re basically tacitly allowing this to happen on our own soil. They are concentration camps. I know that people get up in arms about words and semantics here, and I understand why, but we need a call a spade a spade here; otherwise, we’re just going to allow it to continue.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back to our discussion with John Carlos Frey, five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter and PBS NewsHour special correspondent. His new book is called Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border. He’ll tell us what happened to his own mother, who had a green card and lived in this country. Stay with us.