The Trump administration's comments on detaining families at the southern border transported me back to an Iranian prison where I was an American hostage in an isolated section of a political prison.
On July 31, Matthew Albence, the No. 2 official at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, had the gall to tell the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that American immigration detention centers are “like a summer camp.”
His comment immediately transported me back to Iran when I was being held captive in an isolated section of a political prison. At that time, I heard Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, lie about the conditions of his country’s detainees in an effort to mask its authoritarian rule.
From our prison cell, my friend, Shane Bauer, and I watched the English-language news ticker scroll across the bottom of an Iranian state-sponsored TV channel. It reported on the president’s interview, labeled: “President Ahmadinejad: American nationals detained in Iran in hotel-like conditions.”
Sometimes enemies are more alike than they seem.
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Ahmadinejad’s lie, believable only to the regime’s fanatical base, served as a thin veil over the reality of my detention. In the interview, Ahmadinejad half-disclosed his depraved logic. As he had done throughout my two years of incarceration, he’d ask the media, “How many Iranians are detained in America?” He was holding us hostage, but only once was he forthright enough to publicly offer to trade prisoners. The “hotel-like conditions” comment was propaganda to cover his intentions.
July 31, the day Albence made his “summer-camp” comment, marks nine years since I was arrested at the Iranian border and imprisoned from 2009 to 2011. I still can recall the cell’s metal door. I can still see the leaves of the one tree barely visible over the courtyard’s high walls. And I can still remember my conversations with guards, who spoke rudimentary English.
“Why haven’t I received a phone call in months?” I’d ask, “Why can’t I see a lawyer or talk to the judge? Why the isolation?”
I received the same evasive response from every guard I asked. Each seemed to think that their answer was unique, poignant and hilarious.
“This prison. No problem.” Slowly, the guard would crack a smile as he got to the punchline: “Hotel! Five star!”
I’d riposte with my list of complaints: No due process. No human rights. Not enough access to the outside world. The guard would stick out his palm with five fingers spread and repeat, “Five star!”
Some guards were more frank. When I kept pressing them, they’d eventually reveal their ideological rationales for my detention. With one word, the guards would tacitly admit their depravity while justifying it: “Guantánamo!”
In their ideology, because America tortures suspected enemies in camps such as Guantánamo, they too should freely disregard international law and human rights. For the Iranian regime’s ideologues, as with President Donald Trump’s fanatical base, this style of what-about-ism is both their ideological justification for injustice and a way to cover up their aims.
Iranian prison guards and officials must be cynically smirking at the reports leaking out of America’s immigration detention camps: Children are ripped from their parents, who are then deported. Siblings bereft of parents are barred from hugging each other. Reports have aired about sexual abuse and physical assault. Detainees are forcibly drugged. The first news of deaths are just surfacing. The government then fails to follow injunctions from its own courts, let alone international law.
As in Iran, propaganda keeps the brutal inner-workings of their ideology opaque to the public. The U.S. government first tries to hide its actions by keeping many detainees at secret locations and restricting access for observers — even members of Congress. Then, Trump apologists ingenuously ask, “What about Obama? Wasn’t he Deporter-in-Chief?” They blame Democrats and immigrant families. Albence’s “summer-camp” comment only added to this sick game of hiding the ideological motives of mass cruelty.
These two authoritarian regimes have more in common than either would like to admit. I believe that only when we can see their words as propaganda can we discover their true ideology and how it rationalizes their cruelty. I believe they keep their actual ideas half-hidden because the common decency of Iranians and Americans would find their authoritarianism revolting.