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The Cruelty of Depriving Detained Children of Soap at the U.S. Border

This is an op-ed by writer and organizer Kim Kelly on the devastating effects of depriving detained people, particularly children, of basic necessities at the U.S. border.

Wallet. Keys. Phone. Toothbrush. For most people in the U.S., these are the barest essentials for a night away from home — don’t-leave-the-house-without ‘em, wow-it-would-suck-if-I-forgot-that basics. You need the wallet for identification and financial needs, the keys to get back in, the phone to stay connected, the toothbrush to feel human. One would assume this to be a thoroughly uncontroversial stance to take — after all, everyone needs to brush their teeth, right?

Well, not exactly. Not in the eyes of the U.S. government, at least. According to them, some people — particularly those who are brown, and who were born outside the country’s arbitrary borders — do not need toothbrushes, or shampoo, or clean clothes, or beds, because they have broken a stupid law. Their babies do not need diapers, or clean bottles, or medicine, or their parents’ arms. These people certainly do not need good food, or blankets, or information concerning the whereabouts of their family members. They need only to be punished, for they have violated someone’s idea of the rule of law.

It does not matter that many of them are indigenous to a landmass that was violently colonized by white settlers, who then threw up concrete walls and legal barriers to keep them out of a specific part of said landmass. It does not matter that they are entirely within their rights to show up at that ugly border and ask for asylum. It does not matter if they are old, or young, or injured; it does not matter if they are fleeing unspeakable violence. In the eyes of this unconscionable administration, none of it matters, and none of them deserve to brush their teeth or wash their faces. Cleanliness is next to godliness, and after all, there are only devils here.

The situation at the U.S.’s southern border is such that well-paid pundits with sparkling white teeth are spending their time arguing over whether it’s offensive to call the concentration camps “concentration camps,” or to compare these camps to the ones the Nazis used to detain and torture and murder millions of Jewish people, disabled people, LGBTQ people, Slavic people, Roma people, clergy, and political dissidents — those they deemed to be “other.”

Dehumanization of the “other” is a key entry in the fascist dictator’s playbook. The Nazis referred to Jewish people as “vermin;” Hutu officials called Tutsis “cockroaches;” Donald Trump has referred to some undocumented immigrants as “animals.” It is far easier to knock people down to a level below human if they stink, and look unkempt, and when their children are smeared with shit and tears. According to the The New York Times, the border guards charged with what I can only describe as punishment — or ”care,” as they may see it — frequently deny their prisoners of basic hygiene items and refuse them medical attention. They are kept sick, weak, and dirty.

When Justice Department’s lawyer, Sarah Fabian, was called upon to defend the administration’s treatment of its newest crop of prisoners, including the approximately 2,000 children held in its centers, she was steadfast in her insistence that the legally-binding requirement that the camps be “safe and sanitary” did not include “amenities” like toothbrushes or soap, and that it was perfectly fine to deny them showers and clean clothes, and to make them sleep on cold concrete floors under harsh lights. It was a grotesque display of inhuman callousness, and the public outcry was immense. For a whisper of a moment, it felt as though this wretched government would actually do something to help fix it.


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