It’s Time to Fix the Border Public Health Crisis

August 8, 2019 – Does anyone believe President Trump wants to have a serious discussion with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY)  to address the public health crisis at the southern border? 

“Senator Chuck Schumer has finally gone to the Southern Border with some Democrat Senators,” Trump recently tweeted, suggesting Democrats have sat on their hands and done nothing to try and address the situation.  “I will set up a meeting [with Schumer] ASAP!,” Trump wrote.  

The opposite, of course, is true. Prior to Sen. Schumer’s trip, House Democrats visited two Texas-based detention centers last month and exposed the horrors of what they discovered. Democrats have held hearings, too, and passed a $4.6 billion border package to try and help migrant children held in U.S. custody.  

The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate tabled the bill. “It’s not going to happen,” Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said. 

Even Vice President Mike Pence, who toured detention facilities in Texas a few weeks ago, couldn’t deny what he saw. “This is tough stuff,” he said.  “The crisis is real, the time for action is now,” he added.  

Trump has yet to tour a facility, saying only that he “may” do so in the future.  But that didn’t stop him from contradicting the Vice President’s assessment regarding the conditions at the centers Pence visited. Trump said they’re “beautifully run” and “clean,” despite having never been there himself. 

We already know how a meeting between Trump and Schumer on detention center conditions would play out.  Trump would play to his base and blame Schumer and the Democratic party for the current situation. Schumer, in turn, would accuse the White House for mishandling migrants and treating them “like criminals.”

Sides would be taken and lines would be drawn, leaving thousands of asylum seekers – children– to continue to live in inhumane conditions on U.S. soil.

Regardless of where one falls on U.S. immigration, no one disputes that there is a public health crisis at our southern border. Congressional delegations have shown it. The press has reported it. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General has confirmed it. The Vice President has acknowledged it.  

The real question is, can our elected leaders put the name calling aside, for just a moment, and take action, in the name of our common humanity, to do the right thing to alleviate the suffering of people in U.S. custody who came to America in search of asylum? 

There’s a time and place for politics.  Budget battles, tax plans, public spending – lawmakers and administration officials should have differing positions on these matters. It’s what makes our country strong, and embodies the checks and balances the founding fathers envisioned, which have endured even in today’s polarized era. 

But what cannot be up for discussion is whether anyone detained in America, no matter how they arrived here, should live in a place where there is an overwhelming smell of urine and feces, where basic hygiene and life-saving medical care are denied. We cannot force people in U.S. custody to sleep on concrete benches, or separate children from their parents.  The current situation is cruel and untenable.

And yet that’s exactly what’s happening in America today. The treatment of children and families along our southern border should shock us to our core, and compel officials to put their differences aside and correct it. Instead, government officials have gone to court to defend America’s right to deny migrants toothbrushes, soap, showers, and towels.  

Is this really what the United States stands for? 

Part of what distinguishes America as the greatest nation on earth is the civility we bestow on those who break our rules.  Even some of the country’s most notorious imprisoned criminals aren’t crammed into fenced cages and denied a chance to bathe. They are, at minimum, given a bed to sleep on, food to eat, and access to medical care.

Comprehensive immigration policy and border security deserves to be debated. But politicians must resist the reflexive urge to dig in and politicize the public health crisis at the border.  It demands immediate action to ensure beds, shelter, medical needs, access to showers, and other basic necessities are available to those in U.S. care.  

The time for political photo ops is over.  It’s time our nation’s leaders work together to fix this problem.   

Lyndon Haviland DrPh, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health & Health Policy.