Sarah Huackbee Sandars Empathy Brian Karem Migrant Children White House
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Society

Why I Pressed Sarah Huckabee Sanders About Empathy in the White House

The first time I traveled as a reporter to the Texas-Mexican border, I was 23 years old. Having just secured a job as county beat reporter for The Laredo News, I got a ride along with a county sheriff’s deputy and asked him to show me “the worst.” I wanted to know my beat. He took me to a pair of isolated subdivisions in southern Webb County, Rio Bravo and El Cenizo. 

As a 23-year-old, I considered myself well-traveled. But within sight of the Rio Grande, I saw some of the worst living conditions I’d ever seen in the United States. Shows you my arrogance and ignorance. People were sleeping on picnic tables and in holes in the ground underneath the picnic tables. Some of the small plots of land were adorned with shacks made from pallets you'd find at the grocery store.

The higher end accommodations were aging trailers. The main roads, made of caliche and dirt, had washed out in a recent rain, leaving heavy drainage ruts the sheriff’s cruiser couldn’t navigate. At the end of one of the roads we saw a pair of men trying to fish their trailer, which uprooted in the recent rain, out of the nearby Rio Grande. “They say shit runs down hill,” the deputy told me as we pulled up. “This is the bottom of the hill.”

I could not believe anything like this existed in the United States. I began doing a series of stories on these “illegal subdivisions,” which later were named Colonias. The maquiladora industry led to their rise. Many of the people I spoke with in these subdivisions were undocumented workers who had been sold a hope of the American Dream, which equaled land ownership and an accompanying sense of self-worth. When I asked them why they risked entering the United States to live in such deplorable conditions, I heard one word over and over again. Trabajar. To work.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused me of wanting to get more “television time” by challenging her. A more callow and disingenuous argument could not be made.
My curiosity as a young reporter next drove me to interview those who crossed the border illegally. During those days in the mid-1980s, illegal immigration was on the rise. In Laredo, the line of people crossing the border near the water plant resembled foot traffic in Manhattan during rush hour. The Rio Grande, shallow and wide, was in essence a muddy creek that offered little resistance to anyone trying to cross. Border Patrol agents would catch the same young immigrants and families several times during the course of one day. The Border Patrol agents would fill buses of captured undocumented workers and then drive those buses over the border to Mexico, where the immigrants were released and quickly forgotten.

The determined immigrants would come right back. After all, they were already often hundreds of miles from whatever home they had. They were often unkempt and many told me they hadn’t bathed in days, or eaten more than once a day. Some had no shoes. Many had bruises from recent fights that occurred for a variety of reasons. Some told me stories of being robbed and beaten by coyotes, bandits who preyed upon them along the northern border of Mexico.

Coyotes were also responsible for smuggling them across the border, sometimes stacking people like cordwood in five-foot-by-eight-foot U-Haul trailers. I covered more than once stories of dozens of erstwhile immigrants who died of heat exhaustion or were smothered to death in those trailers. I was once late to my own surprise birthday party as a photographer and I covered the story of a man who failed in his attempt to catch a moving train in Laredo. He jumped. He missed. He lost his two legs, but not his life, when the train ran over him. 
When the Border Patrol agents no longer saw the people who’d already been caught several times in the course of one day, they surmised the immigrants had successfully made their way into the U.S. In 1986, I produced a 10-part documentary series, Across the Broken Border, for local television in Lexington, Kentucky, concerning those immigrants who worked the horse circuit across the country.

Enticed by horse farms and large business, the migratory and inexpensive labor pool followed a precise route across the country working for horse farms and other industry before heading back home in the late fall (they returned the following spring). They sent their earnings back to their families in Mexico, Central American and South America. Chris Cuomo of CNN pointed out last week on his show how we prosecute those who come to this country, but not the businesses that entice them to make the trek. It has been the same for many years.

My curiosity also drove me to Monterrey, Mexico City, Cuernavaca and other cities, both large and small, throughout Mexico. There I saw people living in shacks made of pallets and walls of flattened tin cans with little or no roofs. Their diet was restricted to tripe (tripas) and corn. Menudo, a soup that smells like wet dog when it is being made, but is a great cure for a hangover, was a staple. Those who had little offered me much. I ate my first bowl of menudo in a village where the most expensive edifice was the Catholic church. Everyone else had nothing. 
I saw villages where people lived next to an open sewage lagoon and used the water from the lagoon to bathe, defecate, urinate, brush their teeth and water their crops. Children were dirty, uneducated and underfed to the point of being malnourished. There was little hope for a future and the parents, who had nothing but the clothes on their back and a will to work, could not band together to make their existence any better, for there was little to no infrastructure, no healthcare, no education, an overwhelming number of corrupt officials and little to no government.

Criminals abused and recruited these people to their ranks. You could not raise your voice for help to a government that did not exist. You could not resist or band together to make your life better. There was no way to fight the criminals. Those brave souls who tried merely died.

Further south in Central America, I found the same and worse. Everywhere I went, I found friendly, eager faces and warm, caring people. They just wanted to work and care for their families. Some, finding no other way out, would join criminal gangs because there was at least a chance of clothing, housing and better food. The dark side had a strong pull, and those who ended up as mules for the drug cartels or low-level enforcers or dealers did see a few better days, but most of them ended up dead—victims of the system they joined. Others heard about jobs up north in the United States. Cousins or family members had made the journey and found work in the fields, construction, farming, the horse industry and other industries where cheap manual labor was needed to keep costs down and the U.S. economy rolling.

“Maybe one day I will have enough to eat good food. I’d like to see a dentist, and I’d like my children to get an education,” I remember one toothless man telling me.
This is not the ideal of the country built by immigrants and for them. If you wish to quote the Bible, I offer you Matthew 25:40: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
By the 1990s, my assignments were carrying me to South America. As a producer and reporter for America’s Most Wanted, I found myself in Colombia hunting for Pablo Escobar after he escaped from his prison outside of Medellin. Traveling with the Drug Enforcement Agency and members of the Colombian military, the America’s Most Wanted crew were among the first outside journalists allowed into the prison after Escobar’s escape. Here I saw what happens, firsthand, when there is absolutely no hope for survival outside of the dark side.

Most of the villagers near the prison would not speak with us. The necessary military escort made such an effort problematic. But when I walked into a small local store, I found a man who did talk with me, albeit briefly. He told me this: "Why should I talk with you? Don Pablo makes life possible here. Here I am a farmer. Without Don Pablo, I’d have to leave my home and go to your country where’d I’d work for farmers.” He left me with a nice “Chinga tú madre,” indicating further conversation would be less than productive.

The U.S. has had difficulty dealing with this problem in my lifetime for a variety of reasons. The primary reason is because the U.S. government and U.S. businesses have helped to create the problem. Cheap labor is still necessary for business. Comprehensive immigration reform remains a pipe dream as each side seizes upon those at the bottom of the food chain as either a group to demonize or lionize. Since these people have no voice in ours or any other government, it is often difficult to see what the causes of the problem are since information is received second- or third-hand and many times through a filter used to further a political agenda.
Every president who has served in my lifetime has contributed to the problem on the border, some more than others, but none so much as President Donald Trump in his first year and a half as our Commander in Chief.
The Trump administration is proving to be the absolute worst and it had, perhaps, the best chance to find a reasonable compromise and real legislative solutions, since the GOP controls Congress. Many in the administration who speak off the record blame Stephen Miller’s “xenophobic tendencies” for the president's hard line and misguided demonization of the victims of economic and political oppression. Today, the Trump administration has taken upon itself to treat every crossing as a crime instead of a civil issue.

By detaining parents and taking their children from them, the administration is gambling this will act as a deterrent to entering the country illegally. The sad fact is even if you remove the children from the parents and house them in a former Wal-Mart that now serves as a detention center, many of those children—though traumatized by the separation from their family—are still living in better conditions than they had at home. It is a cold, heartless fact—one that this administration would normally seize on, but the president hasn’t. The president's path is to lie about it instead.

That is not only cold and misguided but shows an utter lack of empathy and a complete lack of understanding of the issue and how to solve it. The president and the administration would have you believe the administration’s efforts would end gang activity, particularly MS-13 gang activity. From working the border so many years and from interviewing gang members for a variety of venues, including America’s Most Wanted, promoting this particular angle to the immigration problem is not only disingenuous to a “Law and Order” campaign but actually helps spread gang activity. Gangs are a problem, but the ultimate solution to that particular problem is to educate people and help stimulate the economy so people can take legitimate jobs. No one is born ready to join a gang. You do it because you have few choices and see your choices dwindling as you get older.

We are helping to create a situation that produces terrorists in other countries. Our continued stubborn ignorance and arrogance on these very vital problems only goes to ensure the problems will persist and perhaps get worse rather than better. Taking children from their parents only ensures those children will grow up damaged, battered and perhaps resentful and hateful. Since those are the seeds that grow gang members and terrorists, when that circle is complete we will throw our hands up and scream about how dangerous and horrible these people are. Some will call them “animals” and never confront the fact we helped create the demons that haunt us.

Every president who has served in my lifetime has contributed to the problem on the border, some more than others, but none so much as President Donald Trump in his first year and a half as our Commander in Chief. He will not own the issue he created by deciding to treat each immigrant as a criminal instead of a civil issue. It is an emotional issue. It is an issue nearly every politician has fumbled and few of us understand. It isn’t about criminals marauding the countryside. It is about hope, despair and disinformation. The United States government and the businesses that take advantage of the cheap labor these people represent are responsible for continuing the cycle.
Playing to populist sentiments, nationalism and racism, our government demonizes an entire class of people it has helped to create and sustain. Last week Sarah Huckabee Sanders angered me for the second time in a year. She first insulted a colleague, CNN’s Jim Acosta, by taking a cheap shot and accusing him of not understanding long sentences. I called her out in the press briefing room for that cheap shot. She then defended Jeff Sessions and the Bible as a means for separating families at the border to deter undocumented immigration. She also blamed the policy on the Democrats. This is the same press secretary who said she has more credibility than most reporters.

Then, as Paula Reid from CBS followed up on Acosta’s question and asked Sarah why she continued to blame Democrats for a situation the president could easily remedy, Sanders lost whatever little credibility she had left. She spouted propaganda as an answer without a care for the facts or an acknowledgement of something the attorney general has already admitted. The president continued the lie on the North Lawn speaking to a gaggle of reporters the next day. Meanwhile, Jeff Sessions has almost gleefully defended the stance the administration has taken. Before policy, before politics and before any other argument, the question must be raised, “Do you have any empathy for what these people are going through?" How can you quote the Bible, insult reporters and hide the facts on a fundamental issue of human dignity and human rights?

This is not the ideal of the country built by immigrants and for them. If you wish to quote the Bible, I offer you Matthew 25:40: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

In as much as it is said the devil can quote scripture for his own means, so can an administration that routinely forgets the separation of church and state. Sanders accused me of wanting to get more “television time” by challenging her. A more callow and disingenuous argument could not be made. It isn’t about me and it never has been. It is about those who are suffering and those who are prosecuted first while the conditions which spawn such despair continue unabated.

That the nation is talking about the issue is encouraging. Education and rational decision making must follow. It is akin to the president’s recent trip to North Korea. Going to sit down with Kim Jong-un should be welcomed. As James Clapper recently noted, it was a necessary first step for the stronger country to make the first step and Trump took it. But can Trump do that with the immigration issue? A base of voters screaming for a wall with little more than an emotional response to perceived injustices is not a basis for sound governmental decisions.

If the president has any empathy, he may well surprise us all on this issue. Before the election, his base castigated former President Barack Obama for suggesting the United States should sit down with a North Korean dictator. Now they cheer it. Perhaps the president will reach a cogent and rational decision regarding the complicated problems of undocumented workers. But in so much as he continues to deny responsibility for the policy his administration has implemented, I remain skeptical. But always hopeful.

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