The sci-fi writer William Gibson once said, “The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” In America in 2018, the same could be said of authoritarianism.
Since Donald Trump was elected, there’s been a boom in best-selling books about the fragility of liberal democracy, including Madeleine Albright’s “Fascism: A Warning,” and Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny.” Many have noted that the president’s rhetoric abounds in classic fascist tropes, including the demonization of minorities and attempts to paint the press as treasonous. Trump is obviously more comfortable with despots like Russia’s Vladimir Putin than democrats like Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
We still talk about American fascism as a looming threat, something that could happen if we’re not vigilant. But for undocumented immigrants, it’s already here.
There are countless horror stories about what’s happening to immigrants under Trump. Just last week, we learned that a teenager from Iowa who had lived in America since he was 3 was killed shortly after his forced return to Mexico. This month, an Ecuadorean immigrant with an American citizen wife and a pending green card application was detained at a Brooklyn military base where he’d gone to deliver a pizza; a judge has temporarily halted his deportation, but he remains locked up. Immigration officers are boarding trains and buses and demanding that passengers show them their papers. On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions decreed that most people fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence would no longer be eligible for asylum.
But what really makes Trump’s America feel like a rogue state is the administration’s policy of taking children from migrants caught crossing the border unlawfully, even if the parents immediately present themselves to the authorities to make asylum claims. “This is as bad as I’ve ever seen in 25 years of doing this work,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the A.C.L.U.’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, told me. “The little kids are literally being terrorized.”
Family separations began last year — immigrant advocates aren’t sure exactly when — and have ramped up with the administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting everyone who crosses the border without authorization. Over two weeks in May, more than 650 children were snatched from their parents.
The human consequences have been horrific. Last week, The New York Times described a 5-year-old boy from Honduras who had been separated from his father and cried himself to sleep at night with a stick-figure drawing of his family under his pillow. The Washington Post reported that Marco Antonio Muñoz, a 39-year-old who is also from Honduras, killed himself in a padded cell after his 3-year-old was wrenched from his arms.
We will never know what torments besieged Muñoz when he took his own life. But Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic congresswoman from Washington State, recently met with migrant women being held in a federal prison, many of whom, she said, were forcibly separated from children as young as 1. Some had their kids physically torn from them. Others were told that they had to go have their photograph taken; when they returned, their children were gone.
In some cases, Jayapal said, the women could hear their kids screaming in the next room. “Many of them were told by Border Patrol that they would never see their children again,” she told me.
America’s immigration system was capricious and cruel before Trump. Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, recently visited an immigrant processing center in McAllen, Tex. Describing how men, women, boys and girls were separated and kept in chain-linked enclosures, he emphasized that the site wasn’t new: “It’s essentially the same construction that was there during Obama,” he said. The difference is that, until recently, the kids’ section held older children who had crossed the border on their own. Now, he told me, the youngest was 4 or 5.
These kids are being used as pawns to persuade parents to give up their asylum claims and to warn others against coming to America. The administration, Merkley told me, has “decided that treating kids in this fashion would influence the adults not to seek asylum. They would hurt children to influence the parents.”
There are still mechanisms in American government that can stop this evil. Last Friday, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, proposed a bill that would keep most families detained at the border together. The A.C.L.U. has filed a lawsuit on behalf of parents whose children were taken from them and is asking a federal court for a nationwide injunction to stop family separations.
But for now, what is happening is the sort of moral enormity that once seemed unthinkable in contemporary America, the kind captured in the Martin Niemöller poem that’s repeated so often it’s become a cliché: “First they came …” There is no reason to believe that undocumented immigrants will be the last group of people deemed beyond the law’s protection.
Senator Merkley told me he asked people working in the detention center if they were concerned about the impact that family separation would have on the children who had been put under their authority. The answer, he said, was, “We simply follow the orders from above.”