Ocasio-Cortez and the Powers of Expectation and Identity

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman Congresswoman from New York who has claimed that United States Custom and Border Patrol is running concentration camps in the southwest United States while simultaneously refusing to vote to appropriate funds to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants, visited immigration detention facilities in El Paso, Texas as part of a large delegation of lawmakers organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and afterward made sensational claims about her experience. The Congresswoman saw exactly what she wanted to see. For starters, this case illustrates the power of belief in shaping perception.

One of Ocasio-Cortez’s more dramatic claims is that Border Patrol agents are forcing detainees to drink water from toilets. Initially I thought the Congresswoman was being deceitful; the claim is incredible. Learning more about what happened from multiple eyewitness accounts, a lengthy interview Ocasio-Cortez conducted with Mother Jones magazine, and the video explanation by Chief Patrol Agent of the Tucson Sector Roy Villarea, I now believe she made an embarrassing error, one she should own and for which she should apologize.

Ocasio-Cortez made her error because she is ignorant of standard facilities in prisons and detention centers. In the video, CBA Villarea demonstrates for the viewer the function of what Ocasio-Cortez thought was a toilet. It isn’t a stand-alone toilet but a sink-toilet combo (these units are sometimes combined with showers for even greater efficiency). The sink-toilet combo is widely regarded as more eco-friendly than the separate sink and toilet arrangement typically found in the more spacious bathrooms of American and European abodes (sink-toilet combo units are common in Japan where space is at a premium).

For most of you, the sink in your bathroom is next to the toilet and uses the same water line. If your bathroom is small, the space between sink and toilet may be a couple of feet or less. In the type of sink-toilet combo one might find in a prison or a detention facility, the sink is raised above the toilet and built into the same metal, porcelain, or plastic structure. Again, both use the same water line. In addition to being more eco-friendly, a facility can maximize space in a room by using this design. This design provides clean water for drinking and other uses. Migrants in these facilities learn what these are and how to use them.

Ocasio-Cortez grew up in a house in suburban Yorktown Heights, New York. Her father was an architect. She claims to be from the Bronx, but her family left the Bronx when she was only five years old. Yorktown Heights is 35 miles north in Westchester County. There she benefitted from good public schools and went to Boston University on a scholarship. Her diversity experience is rubbing elbows with fellow identitarians. Her wardrobe and accessories are high end. Her biography is not the hard-scrabble story she tells. She exploits her birthplace to manufacture that perception. But the reality of her life means that facilities at immigrant detention facilities are beyond her range of experience. Indeed, given her lifestyle, institutions caring for migrants would seem like harsh places by comparison. Her self-righteousness precluded her preparing for the visit.

Trusting that she saw or heard something that looked or sounded like detainees drinking from a toilet, Ocasio-Cortez did not see what she thought she saw or heard. (It should be noted that those who desire to enter the United States have a motive to lie and exaggerate to those they believe are sympathetic to their plight. Many of them are coached on how to act like refugees.) She thought detainees were being forced by CBP to drink out of toilets.

Ocasio-Cortez was primed to think this. She went into the experience expecting to see inhumane treatment. Her worldview frames the current government under Trump as fascistic and law enforcement professionals as authoritarian and cruel. This is why she believes immigrant detention facilities (which can be found in the most progressive and social democratic European states) are concentration camps and why she calls for the abolition of Immigration and Custom Enforcement, or ICE. She is on record actually saying: “According to concentration camp experts, people begin to die due to overcrowding, neglect, and shortage of resources.” She and her colleagues are accusing immigration authorities of killing children. In fact, CBP has saved thousands of people, many of them children, by taking them into custody and giving them water, food, and shelter. In her hyper focused state (eyewitnesses describe her demeanor as agitated and aggressive throughout her visit to El Paso facilities), informed by agenda and assumptions, uninformed about facilities and procedures, Ocasio-Cortez misunderstood what she saw and heard. Ocasio-Cortez confirmed what we already knew, namely that her psychology is that of the demagogue.

Ocasio-Cortez tells her story to Mother Jones (“The Whole Facility’s Culture Is Rotted From the Core”): “This was a cell that had no running water. This was the cell [where] the woman said she was told earlier today that the toilet water’s drinkable.” She admits that “CBP officers were like, ‘Oh, no, we have water out here, outside the cell, and if they need water they can tell us.’” So there was water in the sink or persons could ask for water. Ocasio-Cortez says that “women told me that they had drunk from the toilet.” What the women are told is that they can drink water from the sink. CBP agents speak Spanish, so there is no language barrier. Many migrants come from small villages and are unfamiliar with advanced technology. But human beings learn quickly through communication, observation, and participation. Ocasio-Cortez didn’t know what a sink-toilet combo looked like.

Other visitors to these facilities (with little fan fair) do not see or hear what Ocasio-Cortez thinks she saw and heard. The vast majority of Americans do not believe the United States government is a fascist state and so they do approach CBP with Ocasio-Cortez’s expectations and agenda. Samuel Rodriguez, a Christian minister currently serving as president of the largest Hispanic Christian Protestant organization in the world (the NHCLC/CONEL), was one of those who visited the same border detention center that Ocasio-Cortez visited. His testimony can be seen in the video below. It bears no resemblance to Ocasio-Cortez account.

Ocasio-Cortez should admit that she hadn’t studied the centers, the technology, personnel, training, etc., before visiting. She should correct the record about what she observed. This is embarrassing for her and potentially damaging to the credibility to the Democratic Party (which is not my concern, but a observation for those who might worry about such things). However, for the most part, the corporate media apparatus and bourgeois intelligentsia are defending her interpretations because they promote the goal of denationalization and free flow of cheap labor across nominal borders (see “The Koch Bothers and the Building of Grassroots Coalition to Advance Open Borders”). They, too, are accusing the United States government of running concentration camps.

The level of coordination in manufacturing false perceptions about the US government’s efforts to control borders and address a humanitarian crisis should be a wakeup call for those who believe the Democratic Party has the interests of workers in mind. I have written quite a bit on this. Two essays I encourage you to check out are “The Situation at the Border and How to Respond to it” and “Smearing Labor as Racist: The Globalist Project to Discredit the Working Class.” To summarize, generous immigration policy has devastated worker wages and organizations over the last several decades and, given Census Bureau projections of massive population growth over the next thirty years (if nothing is done to stem the tide of immigration, 100 million or more person will be added to the 320 million that already make us the third largest country in the world), in light of job loss from automation and globalization, things will only get worse. Of course, they will get worse for working people. The top echelon of the capitalist class have never been as rich as they are today.

A brief aside, watching all this, I can’t help but think about a recent cringe-worthy BBC interview of Naomi Wolf in which the host called Wolf out on a fundamental error she made in her latest book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love, concerning laws against same-sex relations. Wolf’s ideological frame, which runs rather antigovernment, primed her for falsely interpreting historical developments because she assumed what a convenient nineteenth century legal terms meant. I call this a Trump-level errors, after the US President’s penchant for not bothering to check whether what he is about to say is correct or not. He goes with what he believes is true, not with what he knows. Ocasio-Cortez can avoid the second-step in the Trump-level error process: refusing to acknowledge you fucked up. But I doubt she will. Narcissists resist admitting error. The more humble and reflective Wolf immediately owned her’s (in her defense, it was over the esoteric matter of the nineteenth century legal term “death recorded,” albeit still a fatal error for her thesis).

So far, my account of Ocasio-Cortez’s reflections on her experience has hailed from a place of charity. I am assuming she is mistaken not dishonest. But the problem goes deeper than the power of belief in shaping perception. There is dishonesty in the way House Democrats are approaching the migrant crisis (which they first denied and then claimed was manufactured before admitting to it). A concrete example of dishonesty was the stunt Ocasio-Cortez pulled last fall (before Russiagate made dwelling on the migrant crisis a distraction). She was photographed “weeping” while supposedly viewing children in cages (a popular Democratic Party meme). A wider shot revealed that there were no children. The Congresswoman was actually “crying” in front of a parking lot with a few law enforcement officers on the other side surrounded by a chain link fence.

Dishonesty disguises the goal of the Democratic Party to shrink the share of the population they believe bolsters conservative Republican representation in Congress and state government. Democratic Party politics are profoundly shaped by an obsession with race and ethnicity. I say this with no love for the Republican Party. At no point in my life have I ever supported or voted for a Republican in a partisan election. I am troubled by Ocasio-Cortez antics because I find politics based on race and ethnic concerns abhorrent. My politics revolve around individual liberties and rights, concerns over against which identity politics is antithetical.

Identity politics is what lies behind the Democratic party’s opposition to Trump reinstating the citizenship question on the decennial census. The constitutional basis for conducting the decennial census is to reapportion the US House of Representatives. Those states with large proportions of legal and illegal immigrants, who are disproportionately Hispanic, tend to be Democratic-majority states. State leaders do not want the federal government to differentiate between citizens and noncitizens because they are convinced this will change representation in Congress. Just as the antebellum South increased their number of seats in Congress by a third by counting three-fifths of slaves, the more than eleven million illegal aliens and the millions more legal immigrants if not differentiated from citizens greatly expands Democratic representation in Congress. Likewise, Democrats want open borders to counteract Republican electoral success.

Furthermore, there is evidence of delusional and paranoid thinking among Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues, a group that includes representatives Norma Torres, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Veronica Escobar, Pramila Jayapal, and Ayanna Pressley. The worldview expressed in their rhetoric strikes me as gleaned from the reading lists that once adorned the Rage Against the Machine website back in the band’s heyday (for the record, I am a huge fan). While I appreciate the work of Noam Chomsky, William Blum, and others so listed, in the hands of such demagogues as Ocasio-Cortez, a generation raised on poststructuralist/postmodernist/postcolonialist epistemology, whose politics lack the sophistication to grasp critical theory beyond rank conspiracism, these ideas become the constituents of a paranoia mindset. The Congresswomen operates on a Manichean moral view of the world as good and evil. Ocasio-Cortez is one of the good ones. Those who disagree are evil. Moreover, circumscribing critical theory at the boundaries of Chomskyan political thought, a framework hostile to Marxism while sympathetic to anarchism and its cynical antigovernment orientation, makes a person appear woke without having to acquire the tools necessary to advocate for the proletarian masses. Ocasio-Cortez claims to be a democratic socialist but she expresses the cultural sensibilities of a neoliberal progressive. Ideology before theory is a fog machine. She is not good for the worker movement.

In her interview in Mother Jones, Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates a penchant for being uncertain about reality while proclaiming her moral virtue. She damns her own behavior by telling the magazine that Congressional Democrats went in attacking CBP for a news story that ProPublica had just broken concerning a Facebook group (called “I’m 10-15”) allegedly organized by past and present border patrol agents in which members shared offensive images and memes and made offensive comments about migrants and about Ocasio-Cortez and colleagues (calling them “scum buckets” and “hoes”). House Democrats had no information indicating that the Facebook group involved anybody at the facility, yet they raised the issue in the briefing room and insinuated that CBP agents present were responsible. CBP officials responded that there would an investigation and personnel would be disciplined if they engaged in misconduct. Norma Torres of California asked CBP if the Congressional delegation was safe, implying that CBP might harm members of Congress. Ocasio-Cortez fueled the hysterical mood saying, “We’re not talking about a couple of people planning this. There’s 9,500 current and former officers.” Planning what? This is what I mean by rank conspiracism. This is delusional thinking.

Later, when a CBP worker attempted to take a selfie with the delegation in the background (I have no opinion on whether this was appropriate), Ocasio-Cortez claims she said loudly to everybody in the pod of rooms, “It is extremely clear that you all have lost all control over the culture here in these facilities. You have lost complete control of the culture. Clearly they do not respect your authority or your leadership. It’s either that, or they just think or know that you are not going to do anything. And that you are just going to turn the other cheek as soon as we leave if they feel this bold and brazen to do something so egregious in front of their superiors. Multiple levels of superiors.” I can almost feel the room spinning around Ocasio-Cortez’s supreme confidence in her own acumen. We knew before this that Ocasio-Cortez was prone to histrionics. And we saw for ourselves the tone of her rhetoric from inside the car before it pulled away from the facility. She then tells Mother Jones: “And I was like, ‘You all have lost all control of this facility. And to tell us that we need to check our phones, and then to have this happen [referring to the border control agent taking a selfie]. Well, you—all rules are out the window.’” A CBP agent taking a picture of a Congressional delegation for the Congresswoman means that the facility was without rules. This is the person in whom a generation of young leftists have invested their confidence.

In its oversight capacity, the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security has identified problems at some of the facilities. These problems are due to a large influx of people crossing the southern border, some via illegal border crossings, others by presenting themselves to border control officers at a port of entry, housed in facilities not designed for long-term detention, and a political party controlling the House that resists adequate funding of border control, including humanitarian aid, and is dragging its feet on immigration law reform because they believe doing something about the crisis will harm their electoral fortunes. Of course very few people want to see people detained. But keep in mind that half of those released into the United States do not return for their immigration hearing. Nine of ten of those whose cases are heard are ineligible to enter the United States. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that, of those who do not return, the rate of legitimate asylum claims is even lower. There has to be a vetting process if there are to be borders. Detainees have access to food, water, and other essentials of life. While some endure prolonged detention, detention is nonetheless temporary for everybody. They are waiting to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or the criminal justice system.

I want to close this entry with two pro tips for social science students (although the general public can benefit from this, as well). I have a Ph.D. in sociology with specializations in criminology and criminal justice. I am a tenured professor who teaches and researches these subjects. I am an expert on confinement and carceral facilities. So these really are pro tips.

Pro-tip #1: When you tour a detention facility or any other facility, consider what the guide isn’t telling you. For guides, the daily experience is understood and routine. They often work from a FAQ script. Guides cannot always know what visitors don’t know or understand, especially when what visitors don’t understand is a rather ordinary thing that others hadn’t thought to ask about since they are likely to already know what that thing is.

Ocasio-Cortez apparently did ask some questions but did not understand the answers. In the Mother Jones interview, the Congresswoman said, “It was hard to suss out exactly what they [Border Control agents] were describing, but it seemed like their showers are inadequate, too, like they’re not normal showers.” It is a detention facility. From her privileged standpoint, she was horrified that detainees had “no conditioner for their hair.” Many of the women detained in these facilities were literally saved from dehydration, drowning, and heat stroke (see “Words and Pictures” and “The Border in 2014…. and Now”). They came hundreds of miles away, from villages without sewer systems or running water. They’re not looking to condition their hair.

Pro-tip #2: If you stow preconceived and ideological notions about what you will see and what it means, you will improve your powers of observation. And not by a little. This will allow you to make better informed judgments and avoid making embarrassing mistakes. This assumes you care about such things. Of course, if one is primed to think these facilities are concentration camps, then the video clips secretly recorded by Joaquin Castro in defiance of CBP policy will be seen as evidence bolstering the claim. When I watch that video, I see people in detention. Why they are in detention is the question that interests me. The answer to that question tells me what I am looking at.

I would like to believe that Ocasio-Cortez’s error is a rookie mistake. She was there on a “fact-finding” mission yet unprepared for finding facts. Or unwilling to accept them. House Democrats were really only interested in acquiring fodder for their anti-American propaganda and open-borders campaign (see “Immigration, Rule of Law, and the Peril of Ideology”). Ocasio-Cortez is not interested in presenting an objective account of her experience. She is a demagogue.

Let me actually close with this: Ocasio-Cortez is being presented as the future of the Democratic Party by her adoring fans. But she portends the party’s death. She and her colleagues are a disaster for the party. Whenever I get the attention of Democrats, I tell them that either they get behind Bernie Sanders and push his candidacy to the hilt, or they might as well vote third party. That’s what I do. It Bernie or bust for me. Sanders is the only person in the Democratic Party universe who can bring the party back to the interests of working people. And the last time we had a Democratic politician who represented working people, Americans elected him four times.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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