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Horror Stories

The sensationalist turn in liberal immigration discourse

It’s been two weeks since a whistleblower complaint involving the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), an ICE detention facility in Georgia, was first reported in The Intercept. The complaint, prepared by the advocacy and research organization Project South and sent to officials in the Department of Homeland Security, leaned on the testimony of several incarcerated women and staff nurse Dawn Wooten to paint a picture of wanton disregard for the life and health of the people in custody.

The public backlash was broad, swift, and almost completely detached from the bulk of the allegations, fixating on one particularly visceral claim about female detainees being given hysterectomies—the removal of the uterus and potentially other sex organs—without consent or adequate explanation. It was a grisly detail that was instantly distorted into a nationwide conspiracy before any additional reporting could occur. A feedback loop between social media, the take industrial complex, and breathless rewrite media spit out blood-curling conclusions: mass hysterectomies, an indiscriminate ICE sterilization scheme, a eugenics program implemented at high levels of government. Ultimately, none of these contentions could be backed up by any evidence. The hospital where the hysterectomies took place has now said it was the site of only two procedures in recent years, and even assuming this is an undercount, as of now no other facilities have been the target of similar accusations.

I don’t doubt that these overheated responses were manifestations of genuine outrage, but I wonder if those most strident in their dismay are aware that hundreds of ICDC detainees are also being sandwiched together during a pandemic, routinely denied Covid-19 tests, that Wooten claims medical requests were shredded and records fabricated, and that detainees with pre-existing conditions are denied treatment and medicine, all under the auspices of the for-profit prison enterprise LaSalle Corrections. All of these alleged abuses are also part of the complaint and, more broadly, the well-documented canon of the country’s detention systems, be they civil or criminal.

There’s a widespread but latent strain of thought that views inhumanity as a distasteful but ultimately unavoidable part of the immigration system, and the system itself as a sad inevitability.

I have personally spoken to a legal permanent resident who was almost killed by easily removable gallstones after ICE personnel refused to schedule the surgery in detention; an asylum seeker who developed anemia from lack of proper nutrition while in detention and was part of a group abruptly transferred away from their attorneys in retaliation for protesting their detention conditions; a man in a federal noncitizen prison whose concerns about losing his penis to a rare but treatable condition fell on deaf ears. At that same prison, I investigated the case of an elderly man who died of Covid-19 complications after staff refused any significant treatment; they subsequently lied to the other detainees about his cause of death.

Every reporter on the beat has stories like this, a never-ending stream of grotesque medical neglect for immigrants in government custody, but this state of affairs is perhaps too “normal,” too quotidian for the public’s sensibilities. There’s a widespread but latent strain of thought that views inhumanity as a distasteful but ultimately unavoidable part of the immigration system, and the system itself as a sad inevitability. According to this worldview, discrete and intentional acts of depravity are an abhorrent deviation from the baseline, but the baseline of callous indifference is just how things are. It’s white noise.

There is no minimizing the cruelty of a forced hysterectomy, and even one would be far too many. Yet additional reporting has backed up what many immigration reporters suspected when the allegations first came to light: this was an isolated case of a rogue gynecologist who, for reasons ideological or financial, subjected helpless patients to unnecessary and non-consensual surgical procedures that left them sterile. There is no national conspiracy, not for this anyway. Yet the report has prompted a hashtag with hundreds of posts, a host of sensationalist headlines, inquiries by Homeland Security, and even made the leap to widely-shared twee Instagram-aesthetic image macro—a level of attention and scrutiny that the many people who have experienced years-long, pervasive lack of care in detention did not enjoy. Last week, BuzzFeed News’ Hamed Aleaziz reported on the death of a sixty-one-year-old man who was ordered released from prison on humanitarian grounds, only to be transferred into ICE custody where he subsequently died of Covid-19. I haven’t seen any hashtags, and the House Speaker isn’t calling for an inquiry there.

To close observers, the latest spectacle of righteous indignation featured eerie parallels with the public response to the infamous 2018 zero tolerance policy, which took advantage of a rarely used federal criminal statute against illegal entry to forcibly separate families of asylum seekers arrested at the southern border. In a sea of horrors, this policy stood out as remarkably twisted, and it rightfully produced a wide-ranging backlash. Yet the liberal conception of immigration abuses seemed to get stuck there, and the “kids in cages” mantra became the be-all end-all of its agitation, even as in the background the administration has moved decisively to gut asylum altogether. “Kids in cages” is still the go-to cudgel for people who want to perform shock at the brutality of the administration’s immigration policies without quite knowing what those are. Most of those currently deploying it for effect—often accompanied by urgings to #vote, presumably so they can promptly tune it all out again under a different administration—probably don’t realize that by and large no asylum seekers are getting put in cages anymore; most are simply expelled from the country without the chance to tender an asylum application at all.

If your understanding of the United States is that it is fundamentally good and virtuous, there may be a sort of sordid comfort in dwelling on overt and purposeful transgressions.

In both 2018 and today, the spark that lit up the public imagination was the ability to draw an obvious parallel between contemporary immigration practices and remote, historical atrocities, especially the Holocaust. There is no shortage of discourse comparing ICE agents and their many subcontractors to Nazis, invoking the specter of the nation’s most plainly evil foreign enemies and in doing so depicting these agents of the state as some sort of historic rupture, an outgrowth of the current administration’s singular malevolence. I’m not the first to point out that this is myopic, casting aside a rich, homegrown tradition of systematic eugenics and genocidal violence, including forced sterilization. Yet the rush to latch on to these exceptionally vivid cultural and historical signifiers—separating children from their parents, taking away a woman’s bodily autonomy and terminating her ability to reproduce—betrays not just ignorance, but a willful ignorance of the banal and persistent force that has been crushing detained immigrants, and people in government custody more generally, uninterrupted for decades.

Through this lens, the outrage becomes somewhat suspect: What is its purpose, really? If it winds up fixating on a handful of conspicuously loathsome phenomena at the expense of everything else, is it actually serving the vulnerable people at the center of the maelstrom, or is it a cathartic balm to soothe the bruised nationalism of the American moderate? Public pressure led ICE to announce that detainees at ICDC would no longer be taken to see Dr. Mahendra Amin, the offending physician. That is indisputably a welcome change, but it would be a bit obscene to take a victory lap here as hundreds of people continue to face the prospect of agonizing and preventable death at the hands of apathetic or downright sadistic staff. Yet the urgency seems to already have died down.

If your understanding of the United States is that it is fundamentally good and virtuous, there may be a sort of sordid comfort in dwelling on overt and purposeful transgressions. These are desecrations of the American project, you can reassure yourself, and not mere manifestations of its intrinsic character. Additional detail ends up being a complication, even a threat. Perversely, the more repellent the allegations, the heavier a safety blanket they provide, protecting you from the fundamental truth that the entire immigration apparatus has relentlessly optimized for maximum suffering and minimal accountability, year-over-year, during the administrations you liked and the administrations you didn’t.