In late May as "new" images of migrant children sleeping in cages at an ICE detention facility began going viral after they were tweeted out by several prominent liberals, we were among the first to point out that the photos driving the new found white-hot rage at President Trump's immigration policies were from 2014 under Obama, and not Trump.
Yet a wave of popular anger has surged as the left has "discovered" Trump's army of "baby snatchers" and border "concentration camps", and investigative journalists are now flocking to border detention facilities to chronicle the stories of hardship and suffering endured by migrants, complete with heart-wrenching audio recordings of children crying for their parents.
Once American discourse inevitably goes into blind hyperpartisan mode on any given issue as it has on this one — with Fox News referencing the border detention centers as "essentially summer camps" on the one hand and a popular movement to get the facilities labelled "concentration camps" on the other — it becomes harder and harder to come by much that passes for informed critical analysis.
But on Monday, in a rare instance of commentary that cuts through the shrill cacophony of voices ready to set up new Nuremberg trials, a prominent immigration attorney and civil rights activist took to twitter to reveal a rare exchange he had with then President Obama in 2015.
"How did we get here?" attorney Andrew Free began his lengthy twitter thread, which has since gone viral.
"In 2015, I shook President Obama's hand, thanked him for DACA, and asked him to reverse course and close the for-profit baby jails (also known as "family detention centers") he opened in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas. What he said shook me my to the core..."
Free posted photos of his exchange with Obama in 2015 to provide proof of the tense encounter.
Thread: How did we get here?— R. Andrew Free (@ImmCivilRights) June 19, 2018
In 2015, I shook President Obama’s hand, thanked him for DACA, and asked him to reverse course & close the for-profit baby jails (also known as “family detention centers”) he opened in Dilley & Karnes City, Texas. What he said shook me to my core 1/ pic.twitter.com/K5vi6S2RPj
Below is immigration attorney and civil rights activist R. Andrew Free's account of his questioning Obama on the migrant "baby jails" which had been in operation under his administration.
How did we get here?
In 2015, I shook President Obama’s hand, thanked him for DACA, and asked him to reverse course and close the for-profit baby jails (also known as “family detention centers”) he opened in Dilley & Karnes City, Texas. What he said shook me to my core...
Specifically, I told him, “It’s wrong. And it’s going to be a stain on your legacy.” He stopped moving on to the next person in the rope line and looked back at me. I’d gotten his attention.
He turned back, looked at me and “Are you an immigration lawyer?” “Yes”. Just days before, President Obama’s senior immigration policy advisor Cecilia Munoz had received a chilly welcome during her keynote address to the AILA (American Immigration Lawyers Association) annual conference attendees in National Harbor. She was greeted with silent protest & signs saying "End Family Detention".
I later learned that her meeting with senior AILA attorneys had been testy to say the least. See, Obama had previously timed great news, like DACA to coincide with the AILA annual conferences. We all watched ecstatic in Nashville in 2012 as he announced it on giant screens.
So the President’s immediate association of “End Family Detention” with immigration lawyers wasn’t random. He’d been told and believed we were basically the only ones who’d care, and even then, it would be a minority of us that wouldn’t extract from him a political cost.
So when I said “Yes”, the President looked back and engaged: “I’ll tell you what we can’t have. It’s these parents sending their kids here on a dangerous journey and putting their lives at risk.” And he walked on down the rope line. Not, “I know. I’m working on it.” not, “Thanks for your support”. Just, “Yes. This is the right move given what I perceive the facts to be.”
I was dumbfounded. Let’s unpack the logic of what he said because it’s that logic which led us here.
First, the President [Obama] tacitly admittedly that he was using detention of mothers and children as a deterrent. Days later, a federal court would find that policy likely violates the due process clause. And rightly so, as the ACLU powerfully demonstrated.
Detention as Deterrence of future migration works only if it’s unpleasant, and only if you can ensure that people don’t get out. You don’t just detain to deter. You detain to deport. You have to do it by sending a Gandalf message down the pipeline to the Northern Triangle.
What’s wrong with that? First, it doesn’t work. It assumes a parent would rationally chose to watch her daughter raped or murdered in Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras instead of helping her flee to seek the domestic and international legal protections of US law. Would you?
People in the Northern Triangle were (and are) fleeing for their lives. They’re looking to what we’ve held out as a shining city on a hill and following the beacon to safety. To convince them not to flee, you must convince them a worse fate awaits at the end of the journey.
The Logical Extension of Obama Policies
Today’s DHS Kidnapping policy is the logical extension of yesterday’s family detention decisions. It’s the same mouthful of detention-as-deterrence mouthwash, just swished to the other side. Nothing, NOTHING in our law requires us to abuse and traumatize families and children.
The reason otherwise friendly partisans on the left went to the mat with the Obama Admin is because we saw the utter inhumanity that happens inside these internment camps. Women aren’t allowed to let their children farther than 3 feet away from them. Imagine your toddler.
I remember holding back tears when I saw cutouts from Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar on the walls in the “kids’ area” of the legal trailer and thinking about how this would mean those kids will always associate the same book I was reading my child with this jail. I remember hearing the constant, violent coughing and sickness of small children, and the worry of their mothers who stood in the sun outside the clinic all day only to be told their kids should “drink water.” I remember nearly doubling over when I saw the line of strollers.
If being in these cages ate away at our humanity, getting to know the people locked inside them helped restore it. The women we represented had been raped, beaten, or stalked in some of the most violent places on the planet. They carried on for their kids. They had hope.
And the detention policies of the last administration were set up to deter that hope. All the while yielding a hefty corporate profit. It was and is a moral failing that these places still existed when President Obama left office. It wasn’t for want of trying to close them.
I remember sitting down with my Member of Congress soon after I got back from the baby jail and trying to impress upon him the fierce urgency of taking immediate action to close these places down. I believed if people just knew, it would end. We as a nation would end it.
I’ll never forget what he told me, back in August of 2015. “Do you realize that Donald Trump — DONALD TRUMP!!! — is currently polling at nearly 40% in Tennessee?" His point was that politically, I was probably wrong: People might not end up caring, even if they learned.
What I hope for us in this moment of critical mass, in this tipping point, is that we will collectively have the courage to hold our leaders accountable when they tell us putting families in for-profit cages to deter asylum-seeking is necessary to stop family separation.