Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, drew ire from some quarters this past week when she said the Trump administration was operating “concentration camps” along the country’s southern border. Each day brings more reports of horrifying conditions in migrant detention facilities. One visitor described the camp he visited as “a human dog pound.” Another described lice outbreaks, a lack of proper bathing facilities and “a whole cell full of kids … who were forced to sleep on the cement.”
Faced with this suffering, Vice President Mike Pence wants Americans to know he is troubled. But the vice president of the United States also wants us to know he is simply powerless to do anything besides blame somebody else.
On CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, host Margaret Brennan confronted Pence about the conditions in the detention centers. Brennan quoted summaries from lawyers who have recently visited the facilities — “‘Children sleeping on cold floors,’ ‘filthy,’ ‘lice outbreaks,’ ‘flu outbreaks,’ ‘not in any way safe and sanitary conditions'” — and asked, “What are you going to do?”
For four words, Pence showed sympathy: “Margaret, it’s totally unacceptable.” But he then immediately pivoted back to border crossings and “overwhelmed” Customs and Border Protection agents. Brennan pressed again: “So how is the executive totally powerless to do anything about these unsafe, unsanitary conditions?”
“Well,” Pence stammered, “we’re doing a lot with what the Congress has given us. But again, Congress refused to increase the bed space in the last appropriations bill.” So we’re stuck with these horrors, then? “No, absolutely not,” the vice president said, before pivoting again: “It’s one of the reasons why the president’s taken the strong stand that he’s taken on the crisis on our southern border. … We’re going to continue to demand that Democrats in Congress step up.”
But the Trump administration is not powerless, and Pence knows it. On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, host Jake Tapper pointed out to Pence: “This is the wealthiest nation in the world. We have money to give toothpaste and soap and blankets to these kids.”
“Of course we do,” Pence agreed, but “Congress needs to provide additional support.” Fine, but what about the support now? The government could find the money to alleviate these conditions today. And in the longer term, as Ocasio-Cortez put it, “You know what saves money? Not putting masses of people in internment in the first place.”
Of course, the administration is facing a massive spike in illegal border crossings and asylum claims as migrants flee a crisis in Central America. But Trump, Pence and the rest of the administration have made increased detention of migrants a centerpiece of their record both policywise and politically. Why? Well, it may not be polite to speculate that the current administration is affected by xenophobia and prejudice. Yet if these victims were white, I suspect the vice president and the entire Trump administration would find the problem a whole lot more urgent.
James Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine.