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Almost 300 years ago Jonathan Swift wrote his A Modest Proposal, a neat solution to the problem of the starving Irish underclass: Why not allow the poor to sell their babies as food for the dinner tables of rich folk? “I believe no gentleman would repine to give 10 shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat.”

Three centuries later, much progress has been made from Swift’s satirical starting point. Thanks to the mechanisms of capitalism, the world is more efficient in its treatment of unwanted children. Why raise babies for food when you can jail them for profit?

That’s precisely what’s happening in the United States at the moment – and has been for some time. The current crisis in separation of children from parents, viewed one way, is a monstrous policy intended for political gain, which will have untold painful consequences on those parents and children in the years to come. Viewed another way, though, it’s the logical outcome of a system in which every enterprise, no matter how abhorrent, can be engineered for profit. The screams of children crying for their parents are easily drowned out by the ka-ching of cash rolling in.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

‘’The business of housing, transporting and watching over migrant children detained along the southwest border is not a multimillion-dollar business. It’s a billion-dollar one,’’ the New York Times reported this week. The network of providers – some non-profits run on a private model, some private corporations – is spreading and currently operates more than 100 facilities in 17 states.

“They are some of the region’s biggest employers, though what happens inside is often highly confidential,’’ the Times reports. Americans concerned about what’s happening inside those detention facilities must rely on whisteblowers, lawsuits launched by civil-rights groups and journalistic investigations.

What is revealed by these efforts is ugly in the extreme. An expose published by the Texas Tribune and the Center for Investigative Journalism revealed that “taxpayers have paid more than $1.5-billion in the past four years to private companies operating immigrant youth shelters accused of serious lapses in care, including neglect and sexual and physical abuse.” In most cases, the government continued funding the shelters even when the allegations had been made public.

A facility in Arizona is accused of drugging migrant children against their wills and without consent from their parents, in order to keep them compliant and docile. A lawsuit has just been launched against another detention centre in Virginia, where teenage boys from Mexico and Central America claim to have been beaten, verbally abused and punished with solitary confinement. The Governor of Virginia has just ordered an investigation into the allegations, after they were made public by the Associated Press.

Recently, Antar Davidson, who worked at one of the shelters in Arizona, quit in disgust over the dehumanizing work he was asked to perform (the facility was operated by Southwest Key, a non-profit that is under fire for paying its CEO salaries of more than US$1-million a year.)

Mr. Davidson told CBC Radio’s As it Happens that he quit after being told to separate a group of distraught Brazilian siblings. The shelter’s policy prohibited the siblings from hugging, he was told. ’’The organization is run on a private-prison model, which is: do the minimum for compliance while the shareholders take most of the federal grants,” Mr. Davidson told host Carol Off. He added, “These kids are just dollar amounts.”

It should be noted that the problems at these facilities span the Obama and Trump administrations; it’s not a crisis that has sprung up in the past 18 months. But the “zero-tolerance” policy implemented by the Trump administration and its unprecedented decision to separate parents from their young children at the border, has made the problem much worse. Or much better, if you look at it from the point of view of those profiting from the expansion of detention.

Faced with widespread disgust, the Trump administration recently announced it would end the policy of family separation, though there appears to be no plan to track or reunite the approximately 2,500 children who have already been taken from their parents and strewn across the United States.

The U.S. government has also said it will begin housing some migrants at military facilities, though I find it hard to believe that this will shut down the lucrative pipeline in detention for profit – many facilities already have government contracts and other private companies supply services such as transportation and food.

Why would these companies give up a revenue generator, one that does not require extensive staff training or oversight and is on the verge of expanding even further? As University of Texas law professor Denise Gilman wrote in the San Antonio Express-News, “Make no mistake – these detention centers are all about profits and not at all about child welfare or good government policy. Detention does not deter families from making the journey to the U.S., because mothers will continue to seek to protect their children from danger at home.’’

Migrant families in Canada are sometimes separated as well and held in guarded facilities. As the CBC noted in a story this week, “Last year, 151 minors were detained with their parents in Canadian immigration holding centres. Eleven others were held in custody unaccompanied by an adult.” We should be vigilant about the treatment received by children detained here, too.

Scholars and doctors have spent the past few weeks sharing overwhelming evidence of the lasting trauma that is caused when children are placed in detention, separated from their families, unable to comprehend their situations because no one speaks their language – or because no one is allowed, by company policy, to talk to them or console them. An entire cohort is being damaged for political gain and economic profit. Perhaps we haven’t covered very much ground in the past 300 years after all.