Migrant Kids in a Dickensian Nightmare


As the Trump administration’s treatment of children at the border continues to horrify the nation, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist comes to mind. There you have another child caught up in a nightmare where ideology overwhelms basic humanity. Whereas most of us see the death of a child as overwhelmingly tragic, it serves the agendas of the Trump administration and Dickens’s workhouse administrators. For Trump it sends a message to future migrants seeking asylum—“the cruelty is the point” in Adam Serwer’s memorable phrase—while for Dickens’s administrators it cuts down on costs.

Oliver has the effrontery to be born out of wedlock whereas many of our migrants have the gall to live in crime-ridden neighborhoods and drought-stricken regions. And like our migrants, Oliver is moved from place to place, always without satisfactory amenities or anyone to love him:

The hungry and destitute situation of the infant orphan was duly reported by the workhouse authorities to the parish authorities. The parish authorities inquired with dignity of the workhouse authorities, whether there was no female then domiciled in ‘the house’ who was in a situation to impart to Oliver Twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need. The workhouse authorities replied with humility, that there was not. Upon this, the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be ‘farmed,’ or, in other words, that he should be dispatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week. Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them.

Speaking of graft, I see that former Chief of Staff John Kelly, who along with Trump and Stephen Miller advocated zero toleration for asylum seekers, is now profiting from that policy, having joined the board of the company operating the three largest child detention centers. According to CBS,

During Kelly’s tenure, the administration pursued ambitious changes to immigration enforcement, and the average length of stay for an unaccompanied migrant child in U.S. custody skyrocketed. 

In the past year, Comprehensive Health Services, the only private company operating shelters, became one of the most dominant players in the industry. Last August, it secured three licenses for facilities in Texas, totaling 500 beds, and in December, the Homestead facility began expanding from a capacity of 1,250 beds to 3,200. 

Located on several acres of federal land adjacent to an Air Reserve Base, the facility is the nation’s only site not subject to routine inspections by state child welfare experts. 

To date, 24 immigrants have died in ICE custody during the Trump administration, and death occurs in Dickens’s world as well. There appears to be the same decree of accountability in both cases:

Occasionally, when there was some more than usually interesting inquest upon a parish child who had been overlooked in turning up a bedstead, or inadvertently scalded to death when there happened to be a washing—though the latter accident was very scarce, anything approaching to a washing being of rare occurrence in the farm—the jury would take it into their heads to ask troublesome questions, or the parishioners would rebelliously affix their signatures to a remonstrance. But these impertinences were speedily checked by the evidence of the surgeon, and the testimony of the beadle; the former of whom had always opened the body and found nothing inside (which was very probable indeed), and the latter of whom invariably swore whatever the parish wanted; which was very self-devotional. Besides, the board made periodical pilgrimages to the farm, and always sent the beadle the day before, to say they were going. The children were neat and clean to behold, when they went; and what more would the people have!

Our version of the workhouse authorities is Mark Morgan, the incoming acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. Meadows knows future criminals when he sees them:

I’ve been to detention facilities where I’ve walked up to these individuals that are so-called minors, 17 or under,” Morgan said on Tucker Carlson Tonight in January. “I’ve looked at them and I’ve looked at their eyes, Tucker — and I’ve said that is a soon-to-be MS-13 gang member. It’s unequivocal.”

Perhaps Morgan’s powers are such that he can even predict the future of six-year-olds or toddlers still in diapers. In any event, his Dickensian equivalent is a member of the workhouse board of directors. After Oliver asks for “more gruel,” he predicts,

That boy will be hung. I know that boy will be hung.

And again:

‘I never was more convinced of anything in my life,’ said the gentleman in the white waistcoat, as he knocked at the gate and read the bill next morning: ‘I never was more convinced of anything in my life, than I am that that boy will come to be hung.’

Incidentally, here’s our version of gruel at one of the facilities, as reported by the Independent:

Food handling at Essex was so poor the kitchen manager was replaced during the inspection. “Open packages of raw chicken leaked blood all over refrigeration units … lunch meat was slimy, foul-smelling and appeared to be spoiled; and mouldy bread was stored in the refrigerator.”

At another site, according to CNN the gruel was slightly better:

Some of the children we spoke with were sleeping on concrete floors and eating the same unpalatable and unhealthy food for close to a month: instant oatmeal, instant soup and a previously-frozen burrito. 

After affronting the authorities with his request for more food, Oliver is locked in solitary confinement. In that way, he suffers a different fate than the migrants, who are packed together in facilities far too small to accommodate them, but in both cases we see people in authority giving the situation a positive spin. A program coordinator at the Homestead facility compared the arrangement to “a slumber party” while Dickens talks about Oliver’s benefits:

Let it not be supposed by the enemies of ‘the system,’ that, during the period of his solitary incarceration, Oliver was denied the benefit of exercise, the pleasure of society, or the advantages of religious consolation. As for exercise, it was nice cold weather, and he was allowed to perform his ablutions every morning under the pump, in a stone yard, in the presence of Mr. Bumble, who prevented his catching cold, and caused a tingling sensation to pervade his frame, by repeated applications of the cane. As for society, he was carried every other day into the hall where the boys dined, and there sociably flogged as a public warning and example. And so far from being denied the advantages of religious consolation, he was kicked into the same apartment every evening at prayer-time, and there permitted to listen to, and console his mind with, a general supplication of the boys, containing a special clause, therein inserted by authority of the board, in which they entreated to be made good, virtuous, contented, and obedient, and to be guarded from the sins and vices of Oliver Twist: whom the supplication distinctly set forth to be under the exclusive patronage and protection of the powers of wickedness, and an article direct from the manufactory of the very Devil himself.

Dickens informs us that, upon his birth, Oliver cried lustily and that, could he “have known that he was an orphan, left to the tender mercies of church-wardens and overseers, perhaps he would have cried the louder.” He could have written the same about those migrant children left to the tender mercies of the Trump administration.

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