Analysis: The family separation crisis peaked more than a year ago. Conditions at the border are still terrible.

Texas Tribune News

Families gather outside a tent at a temporary migrant holding area set up by Customs and Border Protection under the Paso del Norte International Port of Entry between Juarez and El Paso.
Families gather outside a tent at a temporary migrant holding area set up by Customs and Border Protection under the Paso del Norte International Port of Entry between Juarez and El Paso.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

Editor’s note: If you’d like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey’s column, click here.

While we’re celebrating our country’s independence this week, we’re also marking another, darker anniversary: The political crisis of the moment a year ago — family separations and official disregard of migrants coming into the U.S. from Mexico — is still a political crisis today.

The danger then was that the public and its representatives — after several weeks of close attention to the federal government’s terrible treatment of families crossing the border and the still indefensible idea of splitting kids and parents — were already beginning to turn their attention to other things.

A year later, the continuing problems have again boiled over — back into the public eye — in large measure because this Congress and this White House are more accomplished at clamor than governance.

June was deadly for migrants crossing the border into Texas. Each day brings new reports of the foul conditions in the facilities where migrant children are being housed. Samaritans trying to donate things like toothpaste and diapers are being turned away.

Public outcry reached a pitch; one measure is that the perpetual bickering in Washington paused long enough for Congress to toss House and Senate differences aside to pass a $4.6 billion aid package to ease the squalid conditions in the camps where migrant children are detained, to expand medical care, and to provide better access to clothing and hygiene products.

It’s distressing that it takes photographs of drowned migrants to prompt action, that we have a continuing nasty situation with seemingly no ability to sort it out, that we’re more absorbed by the politics of the thing than of the thing itself: the people, the children, the countries they’re running from. This is our best effort?

Making a long, dangerous journey to a better place is what anyone might do if their family was in danger in their home country, isn’t it? Try to get them to America for a fresh start, a taste of freedom, all that great stuff that makes us so proud of where we are? Wouldn’t we be ashamed if the United States of America wasn’t so attractive?

But here we are after more than a year of this, screwing around with politics while the government piles up what really, honestly looks like a growing list of human rights violations. If another country was doing this, wouldn’t we be critical?

Anybody in Washington want a Nobel, fame, acclaim, applause, standing ovations, big parties, fireworks? It’s right in front of you for the taking: Fix this. Come up with a thoughtful, reasonable, coherent immigration policy to cope with people drawn from their unbearable places to our wonderful place.

And if the politicians are slow to pick up that baton, here’s a thought: Politics change policy. If voters put this border fiasco at the top of the list, it’ll be the thing to solve for all of those 2020 candidates seeking voter favor. Then, the White House and Congress might rise above the temper tantrums and name-calling to do something about the mess they’ve made of the flood of migrants at the country’s southern border.

It’s worth repeating: Politics change policy. And political heat comes from citizens and voters who don’t take their eyes off of debacles like the family separations and detention camps and punitive policies unfolding for more than a year now on the border. If news is the rough draft of history, this will go down as a black mark when the historians write about this era of U.S. politics and culture and immigration policy. Their readers will wonder what was wrong with all of us. They’ll judge us by it, use it as shorthand for the kind of people we were, for what kind of society we put together, for our moral fabric. How could something like this have happened in a country like ours?

They’ll have a point: It’s a fair question.