I’m listening again to Lawerence Wright’s God Save Texas, his 2016 book about his home state, a place I too once, albeit briefly, called home. While listening, sometimes it is nearly impossible to square Wright’s painting of Texas — grand in the literal sense of the word, open if cautious to outsiders, large-hearted despite obvious flaws — with the horrors of the concentration camps currently operating along the border.
Other times in the book, it is not at all difficult to think about Texas as ground zero for the camps, their human rights abuses, the rising of a 21st-century American facism.
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics released photos of drawings created by children locked in the board camps. Those drawings, colorful markers on white paper, show the children’s world: frowning stick figures in cages, smiling guards outside the cages wearing guns on hips.
“No amount of time spent in these facilities is safe for children,” Dr. Sara Goza of the AAP told NBC News.
As the number of people trapped in camps climbed to 54,000 this month, an all-time high, Jewish activists and allies shut down the Washington, D.C. headquarters of ICE in protest, prohibiting ICE employees from entering the building. That same week, Vice President Mike Pence walked through an overcrowded McAllen, TX, camp, only to use it as a rhetorical cudgel to “end the flow of families that are coming north from Central America to our border.”
Every day we see staggering acts of cruelty. It’s easy to ask ourselves where this well of cruelty came from and, now that it’s tapped, just how deep its reserves go.
Coming back to Wright’s book, it struck me that this cruelty and its companion indifference is not such a stretch in Texas, specifically.
In the chapter “Sausage Makers,” Wright says, “Children have also faced heartless treatment in Texas.” He’s referring to a federal lawsuit in which Judge Janice Jack ruled that Texas violated the 14th Amendment rights of foster children by exposing them to unreasonable risk of harm while in state’s custody.
Texas’s Child Protective Services and its foster care system is and has been a dysfunctional mess for many years. I used to work for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the massive state agency that oversees CPS and foster care. I was only there for little over a year as a training and communication specialist in headquarters in Austin. It took me months to learn and understand all the competing acronyms, the byzatine bureaucracy responsible for protecting those Texans who, as the agency’s informal motto when, were unable to protect themselves.
My boss had been with CPS for more than 20 years and had come up through the agency’s ranks. One day during my first few months, she was walking me through a whole new set of alphabet organizations and procedures, trying to explain the process of one of the worst outcomes of a CPS case: child removal. I kept writing down three- and four-letter acronyms, drawing flow-chart arrows among the different sets of letters, each another abstract step toward a terrible outcome.
“So what happens when they’re done with TMC?” I asked. TMC meant “temporary managing conservatorship” — when a child is removed from their home and placed with another family member or a “certified caregiver.”
I still remember the face my boss made before she answered, a mix of pity, exhaustion, fear, and failure. “Most of them,” she sighed, “go to PMC.”
“P” stood for permanent. The kids essentially became a ward of the state. My boss’s reaction to my question made it clear that this outcome came with its own stomach-churning terrors.
New to the job, my own child just weeks away from being born, I didn’t have the courage to ask any more.
The state’s solution to this? To subcontract vendors to provide foster care, essentially outsourcing the job to the private sector. All along the way, Texas fought having any body, federal or otherwise, take any kind of role in reforming its broken system. It seems that it would rather continue violating the Constitutional rights of is most vulnerable than cede any authority.
When it came down to it, state power trumped the rights of the state’s citizens. It was never a contest.
If it seems like almost every morning we wake up to country we suddenly don’t recognize, it’s only because we’ve forgotten all the other mornings in which we’ve risen to the same sickening feeling. If the government of Texas couldn’t be bothered to protect the rights of its most vulnerable citizens for the last decade, why are we surprised when it becomes home to concentration camps violating the human rights of those it deems unworthy of citizenship?
It is 2019, and it feels like that within the last year the nation has passed some point of no return, has degenerated into something so ugly that the possibility of redemption is now out of reach. Perhaps it is. But reading Wright reminded me that we have lived within our nation’s slow march toward such a new-age cruelty, to the rocket’s red glare of American No-Knowing Facism. Of course it’s been with us since the beginning. But it was put into practice more slowly than many of us suspected.