Congress, turn a spotlight on hate

A human rights crisis is upon us. Dignity, liberty, and equality are under assault by the Trump administrati...

Posted: Jan 10, 2019 12:37 PM
Updated: Jan 10, 2019 12:38 PM

A human rights crisis is upon us. Dignity, liberty, and equality are under assault by the Trump administration. Now the House must document this moment so that we never repeat it again.

The 116th Congress made history last week. A record number of women Democrats were sworn in, many of them women of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ.

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As the new Congress sat in the chamber for the first time, the Democratic side was replete with vibrant colors and diverse clothing -- a Native Pueblo dress, a resplendent hijab, and a Palestinian thobe. The Republican side looked like an old photograph in a history book -- mostly white men in suits.

There is no shortage of issues that demand the attention of these new lawmakers, from the shutdown to impeachment to immigration. But in order to understand this moment and the suffering of vulnerable communities fully, the 116th Congress must create a clear and inclusive record that documents the human rights abuses committed by the Trump administration. In the United States, special committees and commissions have previously investigated intelligence abuses by the CIA, NSA and other governmental authorities, Japanese incarceration during WWII, and the intelligence failures that led to 9/11. They have been used overseas to document government impunity and extrajudicial killings.

President Donald Trump has waged war on human dignity. The House should respond by following a time-tested approach for dealing with such dire events. They should create a special committee to investigate and document the tragedies spurred by this administration.

Ever since Trump took office, nearly every day has felt like a calamity for many Americans -- the banning of Muslims and asylum seekers, the separation of immigrant families, the rolling back of protections for the transgender community, the war on girls and women, government force and deaths at the border, invasive searches and violations at airports and other ports of entry, and so much more. It's not just Trump's policies; it's the forces he emboldens and intensifies, including bigotry, misogyny, and violence.

In this case, a select House committee would work best because it could be created by a simple majority vote in the House. It would be interdisciplinary and allow experts from different fields in the House to break from their siloed committees and work together to understand this moment. It would also be intersectional in its outlook. The forces that seek to separate an undocumented mother from her child, ban a Muslim from reuniting with his family in America, and subject a transgender student to bullying in school are one and the same. They are part of a systemic and institutional effort to banish, incapacitate, and discriminate against diverse and marginalized communities across this country.

The committee should document the violations that have occurred through rigorous fact-finding, hold public hearings for the world to see, give a platform to survivors and advocates to tell their stories, and lay a foundation for how to move forward.

They should investigate using every tool at their disposal. They should subpoena documents about policies, order policymakers to testify under oath, consult with community advocates and investigative journalists working on the front lines, and hire investigators and observers who can provide additional research and context. So long as the House resolution establishing the committee affords it broad powers, it can carry out its agenda with the same force and authority as any other committee.

We live in a damaged reality, where fake news, or at least the accusation of it, is real. A robust and detailed investigation is thus critical and would help dispel some of the mythology about the present moment. Deprivation and violence are quotidian in Trump's America.

Some may contend that this record is unnecessary because journalists, advocates, and in some cases lawyers and judges, are already doing this work. Yet Congress has investigative powers and tools they lack, journalists and advocates have limited resources, and courts often get it wrong, just as the Supreme Court did with the Muslim ban. Moreover, a Congressional committee carries a different kind of imprimatur and would give institutional and political voice to those who feel silenced and unheard.

There is a long list of people who can speak to the human rights abuses they have suffered under this administration. How about the parents of Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, ages 7 and 8, both of whom died last month, days after being taken into custody by US border officials? What about Shaima Swileh from Yemen, who was banned for more than a year from seeing her dying toddler son, Abdullah, who suffered from a genetic brain condition, until international pressure forced immigration authorities to grant her a travel waiver? Or Zainab Merchant, an American citizen and graduate student in the US, who was kept overnight at a warehouse by the TSA, forced to turn over her phone and passcode, and even made to show her bloodied menstrual pad to TSA officers?

The findings of the committee should be made public in the form of published reports, open hearings and policy recommendations. A public accounting would help survivors heal, offer the public some catharsis, and may even bring some accountability for the violations that have occurred. For example, we need to know why undocumented children are being held in brutal camps, why some of them still remain separated from their parents, why the United States has all but closed its doors to refugees and people seeking asylum, and more about the inhumane and cruel conditions at immigrant detention centers. We must understand how these abuses were imagined, executed, and enforced, and there is no better way to find out than through rigorous, adversarial questioning under oath.

Public hearings would stand in bright contrast to the policies of the Trump administration, which prioritizes darkness and secrecy over light and transparency. They would also provide a historical archive and serve as a stark reminder of what happened to America under Trump. These hearings should forever be etched in the psyche of the American people, just like the Iran Contra Affair and 9/11 hearings were for preceding generations.

These hearings would spark much needed local conversations as well, in the form of town halls and state hearings. Survivors should be telling their stories, legislators should be listening, and the public should be watching, in every city and state chamber in this country.

The committee must likewise center survivors throughout its work by inviting them to share their stories in the halls of Congress and incorporating their input in policy discussions. Too often the stories of survivors are told by others or excluded from public discourse altogether. Those who write about survivors sometimes exploit their stories and don't even take the time to sit down with them. Others prefer to humanize white supremacists, rather than understanding the impact of their beliefs on others.

The committee should complete its work by charting a new path. The commission which studied Japanese-American incarceration during WWII, for example, recommended a public apology, major civil rights legislation, financial reparations, and other reforms.

It is tempting in the wake of crisis to move forward and ignore the past. There are those who think a public accounting would be too difficult or divisive. But suppressing history is a strategic and moral failure. We must understand what happened before to ensure it doesn't happen again. We must own our wrongs to restore the faith that has been shattered. There can be no reconciliation without accountability.

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