Point Austin: Of Frogs and Children

Do what you can to defend imprisoned refugees

Point Austin: Of Frogs and Children

It's one of those moments in political history when pundits resort to the metaphor of the boiling frog. As the tale goes, a frog placed in hot water will jump to get away, while a frog placed in cool water, slowly heated, will not react until it's too late, and be boiled alive.

Biologists respond that the frog story is a myth: If amphibians didn't react to rising temperatures, there would soon be no amphibians. On the other hand, less instinctive animals – you and me, for instance – seem willing to endure rising political temperatures, if we can only remain persuaded that other people might boil to death, but it won't get too hot in the immediate vicinity

The ongoing months of the Trump regime can be seen as one long experiment in political conditioning. The lies began immediately – when Trump had his press secretary insist to the media that his inauguration crowd was the largest in history – and have persisted, by the gross. It's become routine to hear the president of the United States recite barely coherent whoppers while the press debates whether to call them "lies," "falsehoods," or just "misleading." That institutional hesitation is itself a sign that we're not adjusting rapidly enough to the new political context. Every administration spins the truth to its advantage, but Trump, his sycophants, and supporters enthusiastically engage in a "Big Lie" strategy – particularly aimed at the news media – that steadily erodes public confidence in even the notion of factual evidence. It's all "fake news."

The Need to Say No

There's a distressing local example of what happens when otherwise reasonable people get caught up in the machinations of the national security state. Southwest Key began as a small nonprofit primarily devoted to keeping immigrant youth out of prison, branched out into educational endeavors (including its own charter school), and then abruptly expanded into providing temporary shelter and welfare to thousands of children fleeing Central American violence and poverty. The transition was not incremental; growing waves of unaccompanied minors began arriving at the U.S. border in 2011-2012, and Southwest Key Programs quickly became the largest nonprofit group attempting to provide for them, under major U.S. government contracts.

Initially, the enforcement pattern was brief incarceration by the Border Patrol, followed by a shelter stay of a month or two until most of the children could be placed with relatives or a U.S. foster family. If families arrived together, they were generally incarcerated together, while being processed for deportation. What was new about the Trump policy was the explicitly punitive attempt to separate families – to kidnap and sequester children secretly – in order to discourage new arrivals. More cruel was the bureaucratically arbitrary process – now that the policy has officially ended, some 3,000 children are effectively unaccounted for, with no certainty of family reunification.

Southwest Key – suddenly a frog in boiling water – now estimates about 10% of its wards are among that group. Responding to widespread criticism, CEO Juan Sanchez said, "If we don't take care of them, who's going to take care of them?" Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, explaining his opposition to a new shelter there, said, "If we don't speak, if we don't say no, then these types of policies will continue."

Ways to Help

As the reporting of the Chronicle's Mary Tuma ("The Duality of Southwest Key," June 28) and many others have shown, the nonprofit has now become thoroughly enmeshed in (and financially dependent upon) the Trump administration's immigration policy. Southwest Key personnel were even forbidden to comment on the policy until after it had been officially rescinded. In that moral predicament, Southwest Key is hardly unique – the Border Patrol, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Homeland Security, and the entire apparatus of the national security state is now enforcing an anti-immigrant policy that is not only cruel to international refugees but radically undermines any U.S. pretensions to humanitarian values.

What of the rest of us? "I do not want to be an enabler in this process," said Mayor Turner. Every day that these kidnapped children remain separated from their parents is not only a tragedy, but a crime against humanity being perpetrated in all our names, and the obligation to act against it, however we can, rests upon all of us. The Chronicle is maintaining a useful list of the various organizations (needing help and contributions) doing what they can to assist children that have been separated ("How to Help Families Separated at the Border," June 20). Meanwhile, ACLU lawsuits proceed to force the U.S. authorities to identify and reunite families (apparently, because of feckless record-keeping, a process made dependent on DNA identification).

Even a frog knows when the water is getting too hot for comfort. As human beings and as Texans, we should do what we can to reach out to and help the most vulnerable victims of our polarized and overheated racial politics.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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refugees, Donald Trump, Southwest Key

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