Author: Francine Prose
In March, John Kelly, then the homeland security secretary, expressed his belief that separating migrant families – forcibly taking children away from their parents in this country and at the US-Mexican border – would serve as an effective deterrent to undocumented immigration. In April, the New York Times reported that of the more than 700 children seized from their parents during the previous six months, more than 100 were under the age of four.
In early May, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced that the justice department’s newly tough “zero tolerance” policy would prosecute every person – even asylum seekers, even small children – crossing the border illegally. Last month, Steven Wagner, an official with the department of health and human services, told a Senate committee that his agency had “lost track” of 1,475 immigrant children who had been seized after crossing the US-Mexican border; some of these kids, it was feared, had been turned over to human traffickers. The ACLU and the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School have also charged that US border guards beat and abused migrant children, and threatened them with sexual violence.
The press has featured wrenching stories and photographs of children, some of them very young, being taken from their families. A Congolese asylum seeker and her daughter were kept in separate detention facilities for four months. In April, the ACLU reported that a Honduran mother had been separated from her 18-month-old toddler for two months. We’ve seen images of children caged in cells like stray puppies at a shelter; children huddled on cots under thin Mylar blankets; of weeping parents embracing their terrified children while immigration officers wait to grab the tearful kids.
According to a recent story in the Houston Chronicle, children as young as 18 months have been deported without their parents. A woman whose husband was killed by gangs in El Salvador saw her 13-year-old son taken away at the US border – and officials refused to tell her where they were holding him.
Do we believe that these parents love their children less than we do? Can we not envision these horrors happening to our kids? Do we imagine that these toddlers are less frightened, confused and heartbroken than our children would be if they were ripped from our arms by strangers in uniform? Do we not worry that the effects of this trauma may continue to damage these children (and their parents) for the rest of their lives?
Do we believe that these children are less valuable, less precious, less human than Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s three-year-old son, whose photograph Ivanka tweeted as she held him in her arms in an image of radiant mother-child happiness? Presumably, the baby’s grandfather does think that his grandson belongs to a more evolved species than the children of migrants whom he has referred to as “animals” – children whom, according to a recent announcement, he is planning to warehouse on military bases. And how different would Ivanka’s image of blissful maternity appear if an impatient, predatory border guard, ready to seize the child, were Photoshopped into the picture?
One wonders how we would react if the entire student population of three midsize elementary schools vanished without a trace, or if hundreds of American parents, arriving at the end of the day to pick up their kids, were told that they couldn’t have them – that they had been sent away, and their whereabouts were unknown. Possibly they were in foster homes or detention centers; possibly, they had been shopped out to traffickers. Surely there would be a groundswell of outrage and shock, of grief and mourning, a nationwide demand for an inquiry.
In fact, popular opposition to these heartless policies has been growing. The ACLU has filed a class-action suit challenging the Trump administration’s policy of separating asylum seekers and their children. A number of prominent Democrats have spoken out; Kamala Harris, the Democratic senator from California, has called family separations “immoral … outrageous, cruel, and inhumane”. In The New Yorker, Masha Gessen referred to the forcible removal of children as a form of “state terror” comparable to the excesses and intimidation tactics of the Putin regime.
So what can we – people who care about children and their parents, people who still have compassion, people who believe that dividing these families is a violation of their basic human rights – do? We can text and write our congressional representatives and work to regain Democratic control of Congress during the midterm elections, though – since mass deportations were implemented during the Obama administration – it’s not entirely clear that a Democratic-controlled Congress will stand up for these refugee families.
We can volunteer our time and donate to national and local grassroots organizations fighting these policies in court and working to help the families most affected. (A long list includes the ACLU, the Florence Immigration and Refugee Rights Project, the Women’s Refugee Commission, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Maldef, the Hope Border Institute, and many others.) This website provides a useful list of steps that can be taken and petitions that can be signed. A nationwide march is schedule in cities across the country on 14 June.
But none of that, it seems to me, is enough.
In the months since Donald Trump’s election, I’ve been surprised, and not especially pleased, by my own ability to absorb each new outrage, each new shock –and move on. But not this one. Perhaps because I’ve spent so much of my adult life around children, perhaps because I have children and now grandchildren of my own, the reports and images of these devastated families have been keeping me awake at night and haunting my daylight hours. And I believe that this should be keeping all of us awake.
The fact that these things are occurring right now should be preventing us from conducting business as usual, from going on with our ordinary lives, from ignoring the promptings of conscience. We should be taking to the streets, boarding buses to see for ourselves what is transpiring at these border crossings, checkpoints and detention centers.
Because if we know what is happening and do nothing, we will be no different from the “innocent bystanders” and witnesses to the mass arrests, the egregious violations of human rights and genocidal crimes – witnesses who, throughout history and after the fact, have claimed: we didn’t know. We didn’t see. There was nothing we could do.