Nearly 400 migrants were crammed into this cage at a Texas detention centre (Image Source: Josh Dawsey/AP)
By Thomas Kelsall | @Thomas_Kelsall
On Friday, US Vice President Mike Pence visited a migrant detention centre in McAllen, Texas, and in the process, created an image that will last in America’s political memory for years to come.
Pence, who was touring the second of two detention facilities, entered a room with 382 migrants crammed inside a small fenced area.
Many showed visible signs of distress and tried to explain through hand gestures the inhumane conditions at the centre. The scene, as described by Washington Post Reporter Josh Dawsey, is nothing short of horrific.
“When reporters toured the facility before Pence, the men screamed that they’d been held there 40 days, some longer,” Mr Dawsey said.
“They said they were hungry and wanted to brush their teeth. It was sweltering hot, but the only water was outside the fences and they needed to ask permission from the Border Patrol agents to drink.”
But when Pence came into the room, he was unmoved; calmly listening to a Border Patrol agent explain the facility’s logistics, and then—without emotion—turning his back on the cage of desperate migrants.
The moment was captured by NBC News:
The video perfectly epitomises the current state of American politics.
The symbolism of a well-dressed, affluent white man perusing an overcrowded cage of destitute Hispanics is an apt visual representation of the staggering inequalities that exist in American society, and the deep-rooted racism of the Trump administration’s border policies.
Since President Trump took office, 24 immigrants have died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, and an estimated 2654 immigrant children have been separated from their parents.
The image of Pence, a devout evangelical Christian, turning his back on a pit of human misery, is the perfect metaphor for a Trump administration which has continually shown a complete disregard for human life.
For example, the scene is no different from the Trump administration’s ongoing attempts to take away health insurance from more than 21 million people and remove protections for patients with pre-existing medical conditions.
It is no different from the administration’s attempt to throw 755,000 impoverished Americans off food stamps, or triple rent prices for those living in federally subsidised housing (a measure that would put nearly a million children at risk of homelessness).
This has been coupled with attempts to implement draconian work requirements for Medicaid, the public health insurance program which covers individuals on low-incomes.
Pence’s disregard for the caged migrants in McAllen is also no different to his administration’s negligent rollback of environmental regulations which will cost an estimated 80,000 lives over the next decade.
Politics can be a difficult topic to understand because politicians and policymakers can insulate themselves from truly experiencing the human impact of their decisions.
Within the corridors of power in Washington, reductions in health insurance coverage and increases in rent prices seem to exist only in the world of Excel spreadsheets and policy white papers.
This is precisely why this video is so powerful.
At the McAllen detention centre, Pence was forced to stare directly at the consequences of his government’s immigration policy.
He had to experience the sights, sounds and—by all accounts—smells of 382 migrants crammed in an overcrowded room.
And incredibly, he still walked away from the scene with the kind of indifference one would expect if he were looking at immigration statistics on a computer screen.
Speaking to reporters at a press conference afterwards, the Vice President admitted conditions were not ideal.
“I was not surprised by what I saw, I knew we’d see a system that was overwhelmed,” Pence said.
“This is tough stuff.”
The Vice President’s comments were a slight change of course from President Trump’s claim earlier in the day that migrant detainees were “in good shape”.
Pence even went as far as to admit that the situation at the McAllen centre was unacceptable.
But Pence also took the opportunity to praise the work of the Border Patrol agents, saying he was “deeply moved” and “inspired by the efforts of Customs and Protection”.
He lavished praise on an agency currently implicated in a major racism scandal after ProPublica reported that around 9500 current and former Border Patrol agents were part of a Facebook group where members regularly posted racist and sexist content and even joked about the deaths of migrants.
And while Pence may lament the situation he observed in Texas, his administration is preparing to sign a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, allowing the US to send thousands of migrants back to the Central American country to apply for asylum.
With Guatemala racked by poverty, corruption and gang violence, the country is ill-prepared and severely underresourced to handle a rapid influx of asylum seekers—spelling even more danger for those currently detained in US detention centres.
Ironically, Pence’s concerns about detention conditions coincide with the administration launching ICE raids on 10 US cities in an effort to detain a further 2000 undocumented immigrants; a policy immigration advocates have called a “purely psychological” form of law enforcement designed to terrorise migrants.
In short, Pence’s actions this weekend speak much louder than his timid words of disapproval about detention conditions.
When historians look back at this volatile moment in US history, the image of the Vice President and his Republican colleagues “callously” walking away from hundreds of caged and distressed migrants should be the moment that defines the moral character of this administration and relegates it to the dustbin of history.