The Trump administration set off yet another firestorm when it was revealed that migrant children were being detained without access to such basic items as toothpaste and soap. Apparently this is not just a matter of a lack of funds but of a policy decision—after all, donations are not being accepted from the public. One could argue that such donations cannot be accepted out of concern for the safety of the children or perhaps it is a standing policy to not accept any donations—these are points worth considering before immediately condemning the US Border Patrol. However, not having such necessities seems rather more dangerous than any risk presented by donations and polices can be changed if the will is there. As such, one would suspect that creating such conditions is a matter of policy.
On the face of it, denying anyone these necessities is morally wrong. Even the Taliban and Somali pirates give their captives toothpaste and soap; for the United States to be unwilling to rise up to the ethical level of pirates and the Taliban is certainly problematic. The fact that the United States is treating children in this manner makes it even worse—there can be no argument that the children are so terrible that they can be justly denied these necessities. First, they are obviously innocent children. Second, even terrible people are entitled to necessities when being held prisoner. Despite the obvious wickedness of denying children these necessities, the Trump administration not only did so, but defended their actions.
Sarah B. Faban, a Justice Department lawyer, was sent by the administration to defend their misdeeds. The gist of her argument was that the government is only required to provide “safe and sanitary conditions” and since this does not specify such things as soap and toothpaste, the government is not obligated to provide such things. In a now infamous video, the judges made it clear that they did not accept this argument. They contended that providing safe and sanitary conditions does require providing the necessities, such as toothpaste and soap. The judges’ reasoning seems correct. While Faban is right that the specific wording is “safe and sanitary” and that it does not specify that soap, toothpaste and such need to be provided, this is a rather easy entailment to draw. To use an analogy, if it was required that people be housed someplace warm and it turned out that the place was freezing cold, it would be unreasonable to say that this is okay because there is no specific mention of heaters or such. As such, the judges seem to be right about this matter: the children need the necessities, such as soap and toothpaste, to be in safe and sanitary conditions. As such, the Trump administration is wrong.
As would be expected in this age of rage, Faban has been subject to death threats and is the target of hate. While the death threats cross an obvious moral line, it can be contended that in defending an obviously evil policy she made herself worthy of hate and contempt. However, it must be noted that she was doing her job—as a lawyer for Trump’s Justice Department she must defend the administration. It is almost certain that all of us have done things we do not agree with because it is part of our job; we should consider this fact when judging Faban. This does lead to the old problem of disobedience and the now well-established moral principle that “just following orders” is not an adequate moral excuse. That said, it can be too much to expect people to be moral heroes and a case can be made for choosing one’s professional duties over one’s conscience. As such, while I think that Faban had a terrible argument and was defending an evil policy, I will not get on the hate bandwagon.
As far as why the Trump administration has been denying children these necessities, the official line is that it is Congress’ fault. The Trump administration has been thwarted in its effort to shift funds to build the wall and they are asserting that they therefore lack the funds to provide the necessities. This is certainly a clever way to shift blame; but the responsibility for the decisions on how to use the available funds still falls on the Trump administration—they are choosing to deny children these necessities. As such, the strategy seems to be to use the children as a bargaining chip with Congress; essentially saying that if he does not get his wall, then children will go without toothpaste and soap. Using children as hostages in this manner is morally wrong; this is evident to anyone with basic humanity.
It is also suspected that this approach is part of a broader strategy of trying to deter migrants from entering the country. Separating families was supposed to frighten people into not crossing the border and now terrible conditions are being used to try to scare people away. This leads to another moral question which needs to be addressed: is it morally acceptable to deter migration by doing wicked things to create fear? This will be the subject of an upcoming essay.