The Quote on Trump’s Mural Tells Us Everything We Need to Know About His Immigration Strategy

We saw imagery emerging last week from Casa Padre, the Trump administration’s largest immigrant youth detention center, which operates out of a former Walmart building in Brownsville, Texas.

The administration released videos and photos of youth playing video games on flat screen televisions and sleeping in clean quarters (five to a room). There were also pool tables, recreational time outdoors where detainees practice tai chi, and faceless youth consuming meals in large dining halls. At the end of the spectacle, we’re confronted with murals of various U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Trump’s likeness inside this center doesn’t bother me as much as the quote that accompanies his mural: “Sometimes losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”

Some may say this quote is cryptic or nonsensical. I say it’s an ominously accurate testament to how the Trump administration has decided to deal with undocumented people at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Trump administration, for now, may have lost the battle of building a large wall to keep brown migrants from crossing into the United States. But they’ve certainly found a way to come out ahead in their war against immigrants by turning every person caught at the border—adult and child alike—into a profitable commodity. Jeff Sessions said that the children in these centers are being “well cared for” at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer; it costs $800 per day to keep one child unnecessarily incarcerated and separated from their parents in these detention centers.

The Trump administration gets to tell its fanatical base they’re fixing the immigration issue at the border while private prison companies can tell their shareholders that their investment returns will line their pockets on the backs of defenseless children and their parents.

A couple years ago, I worked inside a youth shelter in El Paso where we collaborated with local artist Zeke Peña and the youth inside the shelter to develop and paint a mural on one of the walls. We believe art is a venue for storytelling, and for undocumented youth in this center, it’s one of courage and survival. That was the focus of our mural.

It took us a week to complete the piece. I can attest to how, despite the cleanliness and organization of the shelter and all the activities and educational programs prepared to keep the youth occupied, it’s apparent to each of them that they’re prisoners.

The youth are held for months at a time, many without being allowed to communicate with their own parents, guardians, or family members. They must earn privileges (television, video games, phone access, etc.). Newcomers must wear certain color uniforms and, as the youth learn the rules of the shelter, are given a different colored uniform to demonstrate that they’ve acclimated to their time in detention. They are prohibited from going outdoors without clearance from the shelter’s director and supervision from security; some youth are never allowed outside at all. They’re forbidden from keeping certain items in their possession (like pens and other writing utensils), are constantly monitored via surveillance cameras throughout the entire shelter, and are subject to random room searches. They are banned from making phone calls, keeping cell phones, or accessing computers to surf the web without proper authorization and strict supervision.

If one of the youth tries to open a window to feel the breeze or open a door to feel the warmth of the sun, an alarm goes off and security officers rush to apprehend the youth and reseal the breach. The rotation for how meals are served isn’t lively like a school cafeteria would be; it’s reminiscent of how inmates in prison receive their daily rations. The freedom for which these youth traveled and suffered is expressly denied to them at every turn.

More importantly, the emotional and psychological turmoil that these youth are undergoing due to the calvary of their journey to U.S./Mexico border weighs heavily on them. There are very little resources to help them. Many are unaccompanied youth who traveled along the migrant trails through Mexico were victims of or witnessed unimaginable violence.

Around 80 percent of women and girls who cross into the United States have experienced sexual assault or rape on the migrant trails, resulting in many unwanted pregnancies. Abortion rights foes in the Trump administration have attempted to interfere with these young migrant women’s efforts to access abortion services. And while we worked on the mural, we had the opportunity of collaborating with five young ladies, all of whom ranged from ages 13 to 16. According to the statistics, four of the five of these young girls who painted alongside us had been violated in some kind of way on their journey. It was a difficult truth to process.

The suffering of these youth is deep and real and will sear wounds in their psyches that’ll follow them the rest of their lives. And though they manage to find joy in each other’s company, they yearn to be reunited with their families, away from the circumstances that pushed them from their homes.  

Which leads back to Trump’s mural inside Casa Padre, the detention centers for immigrant children.

The Trump administration has made it very clear that they do not care about the family unit that they cherish so conveniently. Given what the Trump administration stands for in their pursuit to target refugees and undocumented immigrants crossing into the United States, the mural itself is a disgrace, the quote an absurd twisted truth, loaded with the sort of irony that kills.

It might as well say “Work sets you free.”

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