The federal government told a panel of Ninth Circuit appellate judges last week that US border detention facilities are "safe and sanitary," as required by law, even though migrant children are denied soap, toothbrushes and dark places to sleep.
Judge William Fletcher called the position of Sarah Fabian, a senior attorney from the Office of Immigration Litigation, "inconceivable."
Senior US Circuit Judge A Wallace Tashima told the government attorney, "If you don't have a toothbrush, if you don't have soap, if you don't have a blanket, it's not safe and sanitary."
Ms Fabian's argument spread rapidly across the internet - and so did several tweets supporting the notion that the United States treats migrant detainees less humanely than foreign pirates and the Taliban treat their captives.
American journalist Michael Scott Moore, abducted in 2012 while reporting in Somalia, watched Ms Fabian argue that minimal necessities, like toiletries and sleeping conditions, were not essential to meet minimum "safe and sanitary" standards.
"That was - let's say - below my experience in Somalia," he told The Washington Post on Tuesday of his more than two years in captivity.
"The conditions were about as miserable as you could imagine," he said, describing a barren and concrete prison house. Often there was no electricity, he said, "but we had certain minimum things that kept it from being completely wretched."
He said he was given toothpaste, soap, a daily shower and a foam mattress.
Recent reports have surfaced describing US border detainees held in cages of chain-link fencing, sleeping on concrete and covered with blankets made of aluminium foil, allegations that Customs and Border Protection officials dispute.
On Tuesday, the agency said that children in custody receive "continuous access to hygiene products and adequate food" while awaiting shelter placement.
The executive editor of the New Yorker, David Rhodes, contributed to the online conversation, too.
"The Taliban gave me toothpaste & soap," he wrote on Twitter, drawing from the seven months he spent as a hostage of the Taliban, a group known for abusing captives; the online thread of former prisoners has been liked nearly half a million times.
Washington Post Global opinions writer Jason Rezaian, who was held in Iranian custody for a year and a half and has an ongoing lawsuit against the Iranian government, also responded on Twitter.
"I felt if I didn't chime in, it would be the height of hypocrisy," Mr Rezaian told The Post on Tuesday, calling US treatment of children at the border misaligned with "what this country stands for."
"The government is treating them like they're statistics, 'the other' and not deserving of basic humanity."
From the first day in captivity, Mr Rezaian was permitted to shower regularly. He was also given a toothbrush and toothpaste. Mr Rezaian asked, "If we're going to treat the most vulnerable people this way, what does that say about our actual values?"
The case heard on Tuesday stems from a motion filed under the Obama administration. In part, it argued that Customs and Border Protection was holding children in detention facilities that were not "safe and sanitary," in violation of a 1997 precedent.
The Trump administration, however, opted to bring the appeal, asking the panel of three judges to condone current custody conditions.
The Washington Post
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