Cepeda column: When it comes to immigrant crisis, actions speak louder than words
CHICAGO — What’s worse than a humanitarian crisis at the southern border that is eerily and despicably reminiscent of our forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II?
That very few people know what’s going on. And that even fewer care.
For many, the hazardously crowded conditions at southern-border detention centers, the recent deaths of adults and children in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and President Trump’s tweet last week promising to deport “millions” of immigrants living in the U.S. without permission simply fall by the wayside in favor of click-bait news catnip.
After all, why talk about the parallels between now and the time when Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized people of Japanese descent to be rounded up and put in prison camps? Did you know, by the way, that the group included anyone who was even remotely Japanese? If you were even one-16th Japanese — i.e., you had one great-great-grandparent from Japan — you could be sent to an internment camp.
It’s infuriating to now hear semantic arguments on cable news over whether Latin American migrants at the U.S. border are in “concentration,” “internment” or “prison” camps.
These frivolous spats effectively overshadow the tough-to-stomach reality that migrants are being penned in cages and locked in freezing-cold holding cells — that is, when they’re not fenced in under bridges and made to sit on the ground in 100-plus degree weather.
Reports about migrant detention centers have told of sickening conditions — overcrowding, incidences of sexual abuse, rotten food, insufficient water, poor or no medical care for emergency situations, filthy bathrooms — that are ripe for creating mass outbreaks of illness and violence.
But some people seem untroubled by the conditions, preferring to fret over the politics that have created them.
Eladio Bobadilla, an assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky, put it this way in a recent post on the Latino Rebels website: “[Conservative] commentators are wrong, both historically and morally. Not only is it historically accurate to call these detention centers concentration camps, but the uproar reveals a curious and cruel irony: Conservatives are more outraged by the terms used to describe the detention camps than they are by the conditions inside them.”
The Trump administration has thrived by creating an alternate universe in which lies are facts, objective truths are suspect and real people’s lives are mere collateral damage in the war against the left.
And a disturbing share of the country is just sort of accepting it. Not that this apathy is new.
You need only look to newspaper archives from the 1930s to see that we’ve always turned away from horrors with a yawn.
In 1933, neighbors near a campsite in Suffern, New York, that was being inhabited by Nazi sympathizers complained to their town’s zoning commission. The neighbors weren’t as upset by the swastikas painted on the visitors’ cars as they were by the fact that the group was being rowdy and walking around naked in view of the church next door.
None of us is immune to being blind to the suffering of large groups of people in favor of worrying about our own health, our own homes and jobs and kids’ educations. Very quickly, the specific awfulness of what a bunch of unknown foreigners at the border are going through can be subsumed by the also-overwhelming problems of America’s crumbling infrastructure, the scary changes in our climate and a potentially bloody conflict with Iran.
So what do we do? We shut it off. We shrug and figure that someone else will worry about it.
This is exactly what our president wants.
This is exactly what the Republican legislators — who carry Trump’s water and stand by him as migrants are tortured for the purposes of firing up attendees at campaign rallies — want.
And the Democrats?
With nearly two dozen people who think they can win the presidency in 2020 just by being “not Trump,” there’s not a lot of hope for a concise response to our country’s challenges from Democratic organizations.
It’s on us — concerned individuals.
Outraged that some on the right appear more worried about terminology than human suffering? Register to vote.
Horrified that Gestapo-like tactics may be used to remove countless immigrants from their communities? Join an organization that will help other people, especially those in marginalized communities, get registered to vote.
And when the election comes, stop telling yourself that no candidate is good enough and your vote doesn’t count anyway.
Anything less is tantamount to agreeing that what we call the people being caged and abused is more important than their agony.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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