Cages Are Cruel. The Desert Is, Too.

Cages Are Cruel. The Desert Is, Too.

By Francisco Cant
Mr. Cant was a Border Patrol agent from 2008 to 2012.

June 30, 2018               The New York Times

A marker over an immigrant’s grave in Holtville, Calif. Hundreds of immigrants, many of whom died while crossing the desert from Mexico into the United States, are buried in a cemetery there.CreditJohn Moore/Getty Images

TUCSON — During the three and a half years I worked for the United States Border Patrol, from 2008 to 2012, America’s immigration enforcement never made less sense to me than when I tried to explain it to those most affected by it.

Once, patrolling the border fence, I was flagged down by a woman on the other side. She asked for information about her son. She didn’t know where or how long ago he had crossed, or whether he had been detained or become lost somewhere along the way. She didn’t even know whether he was still alive.

I struggle to remember what I told her. It’s possible I explained that crossing often entailed walking for days or weeks through the desert. It’s possible I suggested filing a missing persons report. It’s possible I gave her the number of a hotline that could match her son’s name and birth date to a person deep within the immigration detention system — a person regarded as a criminal by the United States government, another body filling a bed in a private detention center, a person who, to the woman trembling at the fence, represented the entire world.

After a month of outrage at the cruelty of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, last week we saw a stream of confounding and divergent statements on immigration: The president suggested depriving undocumented migrants of due process; Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted that every adult who crossed illegally would be prosecuted; and the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection announced that families would once again be released together to await trial. Meanwhile, thousands of separated children and their parents remain trapped in a web of shelters and detention facilities run by nonprofit groups and private prison, security and defense companies.

It is important to understand that the crisis of separation manufactured by the Trump administration is only the most visibly abhorrent manifestation of a decades-long project to create a “state of exception” along our southern border.

This concept was used by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to describe the states of emergency declared by governments to suspend or diminish rights and protections. In April, when the president deployed National Guard troops to the border (an action also taken by his two predecessors), he declared that “the situation at the border has now reached a point of crisis.” In fact, despite recent upticks, border crossings remained at historic lows and the border was more secure than ever — though we might ask, secure for whom?

For most Americans, what happens on the border remains out of sight and out of mind. But in the immigration enforcement community, the militarization of the border has given rise to a culture imbued with the language and tactics of war.

Border agents refer to migrants as “criminals,” “aliens,” “illegals,” “bodies” or “toncs” (possibly an acronym for “temporarily out of native country” or “territory of origin not known” — or a reference to the sound of a Maglite hitting a migrant’s skull). They are equipped with drones, helicopters, infrared cameras, radar, ground sensors and explosion-resistant vehicles. But their most deadly tool is geographic — the desert itself.

“Prevention Through Deterrence” came to define border enforcement in the 1990s, when the Border Patrol cracked down on migrant crossings in cities like El Paso. Walls were built, budgets ballooned and scores of new agents were hired to patrol border towns. Everywhere else, it was assumed, the hostile desert would do the dirty work of deterring crossers, away from the public eye.

Doris Meissner, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000, told The Arizona Republic that the agency believed “that geography would be an ally to us” and that border crossings “would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.”

But even as it became obvious that large numbers were risking the desert crossing and a hundred or more were dying each year from exposure, the government did not change course. “The idea of abandoning any kind of strengthened border enforcement because of that consequence was not a point of serious discussion,” Ms. Meissner admitted. In other words, migrant deaths continued by design.

The Border Patrol often cites its search-and-rescue operations as evidence that its practices are somehow humane. But this is like firefighters asking to be thanked for putting out a blaze started by their own chief. Receiving training as an E.M.T. allowed me to cling to the idea that I was helping migrants by administering aid while ignoring the fact that I was participating in pushing them toward death.

Such defenses also gloss over the patrol’s casual brutality: I have witnessed agents scattering migrant groups in remote areas and destroying their water supplies, acts that have also been extensively documented by humanitarian groups.

The principle of deterrence is behind the current administration’s zero-tolerance policy. In an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, Mr. Sessions, pressed on whether children were being separated from parents to deter crossers, conceded, “Yes, hopefully people will get the message.”

Administration officials have claimed that even this policy is “humanitarian,” in part because it may dissuade future migrants from bringing their children on the dangerous journey.

This ignores decades of proof that no matter what version of hell migrants are made to pass through at the border, they will endure it to escape far more tangible threats of violence in their home countries, to reunite with family or to secure some semblance of economic stability.

Policymakers also ignore that new enforcement measures almost always strengthen cartel-aligned human trafficking networks, giving them cause to increase their smuggling fees and push vulnerable migrants to make riskier crossings to avoid detection.

Jason De León, the director of the Undocumented Migration Project, argues that the government sees undocumented migrants as people “whose lives have no political or social value” and “whose deaths are of little consequence.”

This devaluation of migrant life is not just rhetorical: CNN recently revealed that the Border Patrol has been undercounting migrant deaths, failing to include more than 500 in its official tally of more than 6,000 deaths over 16 years — a literal erasure of lives.

The logic of deterrence is not unlike that of war: It has transformed the border into a state of exception where some of the most vulnerable people on earth face death and disappearance and where children are torn from their parents to send the message You are not safe here. In this sense, the situation at the border has reached a point of crisis — not one of criminality but of disregard for human life.

We cannot return to indifference. In the aftermath of our nation’s outcry against family separation, it is vital that we direct our outrage toward the violent policies that enabled it.

Francisco Cantú, a former Border Patrol agent, is the author of “The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border.”

Suicides Have Increased. Is This an Existential Crisis?

Suicides Have Increased. Is This an Existential Crisis?

By Clay Routledge                The New York Times
Dr. Routledge is a behavioral scientist.      June 23, 2018

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released startling new statistics on the rise of deaths by suicide in the United States, which are up 25 percent since 1999 across most ethnic and age groups. These numbers clearly point to a crisis — but of what kind?

Many argue that this is a crisis of mental health care, that people are not getting the services they need. The proposed solution is better therapies, more effective antidepressants and greater access to treatment.

This assessment may be correct. However, the suicide rate has increased even as more people are seeking treatment for depression and anxiety, and even as treatment for those conditions has become more widely available. An additional explanation seems to be needed.

As a behavioral scientist who studies basic psychological needs, including the need for meaning, I am convinced that our nation’s suicide crisis is in part a crisis of meaninglessness. Fully addressing it will require an understanding of how recent changes in American society — changes in the direction of greater detachment and a weaker sense of belonging — are increasing the risk of existential despair.

Like other organisms, humans are in the survival and reproduction game. We have a strong orientation to live — that is, to avoid death. However, the neurological machinery that has helped us survive has also rendered us distinctively ruminative. Our capacity to reflect on ourselves, to think about the past and the future and to engage in abstract thought has given us access to some uncomfortable truths: We know that we and everyone we care about will age, become frailer and die. We recognize that life is uncertain. We understand that pain and sorrow are part of our destiny. What is the point of it all?

In order to keep existential anxiety at bay, we must find and maintain perceptions of our lives as meaningful. We are a species that strives not just for survival, but also for significance. We want lives that matter. It is when people are not able to maintain meaning that they are most psychologically vulnerable.

Empirical studies bear this out. A felt lack of meaning in one’s life has been linked to alcohol and drug abuse, depression, anxiety and — yes — suicide. And when people experience loss, stress or trauma, it is those who believe that their lives have a purpose who are best able to cope with and recover from distress.

How do we find meaning and purpose in our lives? There are many paths, but the psychological literature suggests that close relationships with other people are our greatest existential resource. Regardless of social class, age, gender, religion or nationality, people report that the life experiences they find most personally meaningful typically involve loved ones.

Critically, studies indicate that it isn’t enough to simply be around or even liked by other people. We need to feel valued by them, to feel we are making important contributions to a world that matters. This helps explain why people can feel lonely and meaningless even if they are regularly surrounded by others who treat them well: Merely pleasant or enjoyable social encounters aren’t enough to stave off despair.

All of which brings us to the changing social landscape of America. To bemoan the decline of neighborliness, the shrinking of the family and the diminishing role of religion may sound like the complaining of a crotchety old man. Yet from the standpoint of psychological science, these changes, regardless of what you otherwise think about them, pose serious threats to a life of meaning.

Consider that Americans today, compared with those of past generations, are less likely to know and interact with their neighbors, to believe that people are generally trustworthy and to feel that they have individuals they can confide in. This is a worrisome development from an existential perspective: Studies have shown that the more people feel a strong sense of belongingness, the more they perceive life as meaningful. Other studies have shown that lonely people view life as less meaningful than those who feel strongly connected to others.

Something similar is at stake in the decreasing size of the family. Americans today are waiting longer to marry and have children, and are having fewer children. This may be a desirable state of affairs for many people (though evidence suggests that American women are having fewer children than they want). Nonetheless, researchers have found that adults with children are more focused on matters of meaning than are adults who do not have children, and that parents experience a greater sense of meaningfulness when they are engaged in activities that involve taking care of children.

As for religion, which has long provided the institutional and social scaffolding for a life of meaning, it, too, is in steep decline. Americans these days, especially young adults, are less likely to identify with a religious faith, attend church or engage in other religious practices. But as my research has shown, the sense of meaningfulness provided by religion is not so easily replicated in nonreligious settings: When Americans abandon traditional houses of worship, they increasingly search for alternative religious-like experiences (including those involving ideas about ghosts or space aliens) in order to feel as if they are part of something larger and more meaningful than their brief mortal lives.

There is even reason to think that America’s existential crisis may be contributing to our rancorous political divisions. Studies show that when presented with existentially threatening ideas (such as reminders of their mortality), people respond with increased bias toward their own worldview, particularly if they are not finding meaning in their life through other sources. In this way, our fractious political culture may be fueled not just by ideological disagreement, but also by a desperate search, common to all lost souls, to find meaning anywhere we can.


Clay Routledge is a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University and the author of “Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World.”

Trump Economic Adviser Ties G-7 Tension to North Korea Meeting

Trump Economic Adviser Ties G-7 Tension to North Korea Meeting

By Noah Weiland June 10, 2018                The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s top economic adviser said on Sunday that Mr. Trump had pulled out of a joint statement with allies at the Group of 7 meeting over the weekend because a “betrayal” by the Canadian prime minister had threatened to make Mr. Trump appear weak before his summit meeting on Tuesday with North Korea’s leader.

The adviser, Larry Kudlow, said that Mr. Trump had no choice but to take the action after the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said in a news conference that Canada would not be bullied by the United States on trade.

Mr. Trump “is not going to let a Canadian prime minister push him around,” Mr. Kudlow said, adding, “He is not going to permit any show of weakness on a trip to negotiate with North Korea.”

Mr. Trudeau made his remarks, which were largely measured in tone, after the president had agreed to sign the joint statement and had left for his historic meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Negotiators had struggled to write a compromise communiqué addressing trade and other issues that the seven nations could agree on, but issued one on Saturday believing that there would be consensus.

In his news conference, the prime minister made a vow to protect his country’s interests that was not unlike the promises Mr. Trump himself has made for the United States. But Mr. Kudlow said that the timing of the comments meant that Mr. Trudeau had “stabbed us in the back.”

“We joined the communiqué in good faith,” Mr. Kudlow said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “You just don’t behave that way, O.K.? It’s a betrayal.”

He added that Mr. Trump “had every right — every right — to push back on this amateurish Trudeau scheme.”

Peter Navarro, the president’s top trade adviser, echoed Mr. Kudlow’s criticism of Mr. Trudeau, though in even harsher terms.

“There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door,” Mr. Navarro said on “Fox News Sunday.”

On Sunday, Democrats expressed alarm at Mr. Trump’s decision to back away from the joint G-7 statement.

“This wasn’t just with Trudeau. This is with our best allies,” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said on CNN. “Not to sign a statement of solidarity, which stands for everything that we stand for, is a big mistake.”

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, offered a message to foreign nations in a tweet.

“To our allies: bipartisan majorities of Americans remain pro-free trade, pro-globalization & supportive of alliances based on 70 years of shared values,” he wrote on Saturday. “Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.”

On Saturday, Mr. Trudeau said Canada would retaliate against United States tariffs on steel and aluminum products. The president apparently heard Mr. Trudeau’s comments while flying on Air Force One and quickly lashed out on Twitter.

“Based on Justin’s false statements at his news conference, and the fact that Canada is charging massive Tariffs to our U.S. farmers, workers and companies, I have instructed our U.S. Reps not to endorse the Communique as we look at Tariffs on automobiles flooding the U.S. Market!” Mr. Trump wrote.

He added that Mr. Trudeau was “very dishonest and weak” and “acted so meek and mild.”

Mr. Trump’s response amounted to a declaration of political war on one of the country’s closest allies, and further isolated the United States after months of protectionist threats that have kept Mr. Trudeau on edge.

In a tweet on Sunday, Mr. Trudeau chose to focus on what he said was the substance of the summit meeting.

“The historic and important agreement we all reached at #G7Charlevoix will help make our economies stronger & people more prosperous, protect our democracies, safeguard our environment and protect women & girls’ rights around the world,” he wrote. “That’s what matters.”

The Canadian foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said on Sunday that “Canada does not believe that ad hominem attacks are a particularly appropriate or useful way to conduct our relations with other countries.”

She added, “We particularly refrain from ad hominem attacks when it comes to our allies.”

Canada was not the only target at the G-7 meeting. During closed-door sessions on Friday, Mr. Trump went around the room, declaring ways that each of the nations had mistreated the United States, according to a European official. Mr. Trump has long maintained that his country has been duped by others into signing disastrous trade agreements.

His comments also came just hours after Mr. Trudeau had tried to paint a more civil picture of the summit meeting, which was held in a quiet resort town north of Quebec City.

Mr. Trudeau had said he was “inspired” by the talks between the seven international allies on economic and foreign policy questions. Mr. Trump had posed for pictures with the other world leaders, gripping and grinning amid talks that White House aides insisted were friendly.

Mr. Kudlow, a free-trader who joined the administration in March, said on Sunday that the United States had in fact been near a substantive agreement with Canada on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been the subject of difficult negotiations.

“We were very close to making a deal with Canada on NAFTA, bilaterally perhaps,” he said on CNN, though he did not elaborate.