Another Abu Ghraib?

How Donald Trump’s Immigration Policies Could Lead to Abuse
An ICE arrest
An ICE arrest. Could aggressive and militaristic practices lead to abuse?

American’s traditional optimism about the future is steadily giving way to the conjuring of worst-case scenarios. With Donald Trump in office, Pollyanna is turning into Chicken Little: if the sky isn’t falling today, it will tomorrow.

Chicken-Little-in-Chief Donald Trump has us peering around corners for the next disaster. Chaos and carnage rule our cities. Murder rates are up. Jobs are down. Terrorists and bad hombres stream through open borders. The media is the enemy of the people. Is it any wonder that citizens begin to fear that policies based on these worst-case scenarios may produce worst-case scenarios of their own.

For example: in a New York Times op-ed, veteran war correspondent Tom Ricks raises the alarm about immigrant detention centers. He asks whether they will become like Abu Ghraib. On the face of it, Ricks’s comparison seems absurd. Yet he points to some potent similarities. The infamous practices of Abu Ghraib, recorded in photographs taken by the soldiers themselves, were not official policy; they were the by-products of haste, carelessness, ignorance, inexperience, and, as then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it, a “few bad apples.”

During the first days of the Iraq war, finding those who made the bombs and IEDs that were killing and maiming U.S. soldiers became a top priority. That led to random round-ups of Iraqis, who were often seized in the middle of the night and hustled without notice to Abu Ghraib. The prison was soon overcrowded, and many U.S. soldiers serving as guards were inexperienced and overwhelmed. The officer in charge of the unit exposed by the infamous photos encouraged the humiliation and abuse of prisoners. The harsh conditions were known to superiors and ignored; when a brigadier general in charge complained about overcrowding, she (yes, she) was told to put up tents. In the end, the ratio of prisoners to interrogators was so great that some were never questioned. Though none of this was intended, it followed a series of decisions that led predictably to the abuse. Will rounding up and detaining undocumented immigrants in ever-greater numbers repeat this mistake?

Ricks does not believe that “immigrants are being tortured in the horrific way that prisoners at Abu Ghraib were.” What concerns him is the aggression and military bearing of immigration enforcement agents, as well as similarities of language (“shackles off”) and practice, the dawn raids, and workplace round-ups. Does this forecast a regime of abuse?

President Trump has promised an all-out effort to deport the “bad hombres.” Border and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents, whose union leaders endorsed Trump, are eager to get to work. If Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly succeeds in hiring an additional ten thousand ICE agents and five thousand border guards (a big if), then many more eager beavers will go to work, some of them inexperienced. Add to Kelly’s to-do list the need to build more detention facilities. Their capacities are measured in “bed days”—beds available for the time a detained immigrant awaits deportation. Currently there are some 34,000 bed days available. Under Trump’s plan, that number could grow to 200,000. Even now, the government depends on outsourcing; in 2015, profit-making corporations ran 64 percent of the detention centers and made billions of dollars. As with private prisons generally, widespread complaints include lack of medical care and government oversight, as well as insufficient food and the violation of detainees’ legal rights.

The actual outcome of the Trump administration’s deportation promises remains to be seen. Yet even in the absence of clear policy and published regulations, immigration and border agents have gone to work with enthusiasm. The airport fiascos following the executive order of January 27, which included detaining and deporting travelers with valid documents, demonstrates the problem of ill-conceived policies combined with poorly supervised enforcement.

Is the sky falling? Is Ricks’s comparison overblown? Will Secretary John Kelly, a retired Marine general, preside over the rerun of a major military scandal? Will he support a policy that is being hastily and carelessly implemented? Will he remove the inevitable “bad apples”? Has he learned the lessons of Abu Ghraib, and will he heed them?

Published in the March 24, 2017 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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