Do unto others

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ — Matthew 25:40

When Americans think of the word “evil,” many of them probably envision faraway places where dictators and tyrants imprison and torture the vulnerable and the innocent. Some likely recall what President George W. Bush called the “axis of evil” — the rogue states of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea which “threaten the peace of the world.” Many probably hear the word “evil” and think of genocide, and mass graves, slavery and persecution.

But how many of us would ever imagine that — when it comes to how we treat immigrants and refugees who show up at our front door, battered but not beaten, starving for a second chance — the word “evil” would aptly describe the acts of immigration officials acting in our name?

Those of us who follow the immigration debate closely had to have known something went horribly wrong between 2009 and 2014 — or at least suspected it.

The table was set by a series of seemingly unrelated events that nonetheless impacted one another.

For one thing, you had a Democrat in the White House, which tends to turn the liberal media watchdog into a lapdog. So a lot of high-level misbehavior goes unreported. You would never know it from how doggedly the media pursues President Trump and just about every member of his administration, but there was a time not long ago when the Fourth Estate was much tamer.

On top of that, there was so much gang violence in Central America countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that a steady stream of women and children came across the U.S.-Mexico border, looking for a safe haven; in the summer of 2014, the stream turned to a flood, as more than 100,000 refugees crossed the border into Texas.

And finally, Republicans were once again on the warpath over illegal immigration and proposing one outrageous and half-baked solution after another. This included the poorly-conceived 2010 Arizona immigration law, which all but required local and state police officers to profile Latinos as they went about enforcing federal immigration law.

To recap, the media was disinterested, and Americans were distracted. And so the Obama administration was left on the honor system to treat the incoming refugees from Central America — especially the children — honorably, fairly, and compassionately, even though not many people were watching.

Well, guess what happened: Nothing good.

Many of the children — ages 5 to 17, and already arriving here scared and vulnerable — were subjected to a gauntlet of mistreatment where they were detained, beaten, abused, sexually assaulted, deprived of food and medical care and threatened with physical harm. And who did these wicked things? That’s the worst part. The culprits were not those “bad hombres” and MS-13 “animals” that President Trump likes to talk tough about.

According to a shocking report released last week by the American Civil Liberties Union, the villains were agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The report — which was released last week and based on about 30,000 pages of documents obtained by the ACLU through an open-records lawsuit — alleges that agents used Tasers on minors for amusement or punishment, kicked them and threatened to rape or kill them.

Agents reportedly kept minors in detention cells at frigid temperatures, forcing them to sleep on concrete floors; these places became known, among the children, as “hieleras” (freezers). In all, there appears to have been at least several hundred cases of abuse.

The ACLU claims that, when complaints were filed with the Department of Homeland Security, they were largely dismissed.

In response to the report, Dan Hetlage, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told reporters that improvements in oversight have been made since 2014, including stricter guidelines on use of force and a zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse. He also said that the agency “takes seriously all allegations of misconduct.”

Some of the behavior detailed in the report went beyond cruel, and can be described as sadistic. An agent allegedly pushed his Taser into a boy’s stomach, shocking him, then kneed him twice in the same spot. A 16-year-old girl who was held outside Phoenix claimed that an agent “forcibly spread her legs and touched her private parts so hard that she screamed.” Another 16-year-old girl — who was in a California detention center with a baby — claimed that an agent threatened to rape her and place her child in foster care.

There’s a word for that sort of thing: Evil. And it’s all the more troubling when, as U.S. citizens and taxpayers, such evil acts are committed in our name.

Ruben Navarrette, a contributing editor to Angelus News, is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a Daily Beast columnist, author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano,” and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.”