We as a nation have crossed so many ugly lines recently, yet one new policy of President Donald Trump’s particularly haunts me. I’m speaking of the administration’s tactic of seizing children from desperate refugees at the border.
“I was given only five minutes to say goodbye,” a Salvadoran woman wrote in a declaration in an Amercian Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the government, after her 4- and 10-year-old sons were taken from her. “My babies started crying when they found out we were going to be separated.”
“In tears myself, I asked my boys to be brave, and I promised we would be together soon. I begged the woman who took my children to keep them together so they could at least have each other.”
This mother, who for her protection is identified only by her initials, J.I.L., said that while in El Salvador she was severely beaten in front of her family by a gang, and she then fled the country to save the lives of her children.
Who among us would not do the same?
J.I.L. noted that she had heard that her children might have been separated and sent to two different foster homes, and added: “I am scared for my little boys.”
Is this really who we are? As a parent, as the son of a refugee myself, I find that in this case Trump’s policy has veered from merely abhorrent to truly evil.
Family separations arise in part because of the new Trump administration policy, announced last month, of “zero tolerance” for people who cross the border illegally. That means that parents are jailed (which happened rarely before), and their kids are taken away from them.
“That’s no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States when an adult of a family commits a crime,” Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen told NPR this month. “If you as a parent break into a house, you will be incarcerated by police and thereby separated from your family.”
Yet Mirian, a Honduran woman who arrived in the U.S., broke no law. She simply followed the established procedure by presenting herself at an official border crossing point and requesting asylum because her life was in danger in Honduras – nevertheless, her 18-month-old was taken from her.
“The immigration officers made me walk out with my son to a government vehicle and place my son in a car seat in the vehicle,” Mirian said in a declaration accompanying the ACLU suit. “My son was crying as I put him in the seat. I did not even have a chance to comfort my son, because the officers slammed the door shut as soon as he was in his seat.”
Likewise, Ms. G, a Mexican in the ACLU suit, went to an official border crossing point and requested asylum with her 4-year-old son and blind 6-year-old daughter. None of them had broken U.S. law, yet the children were taken from their mother.
“I have not seen my children for one and a half months,” Ms. G wrote in her declaration. “I worry about them constantly and don’t know when I will see them.”
Granted, this does not happen to all who present themselves at the border and do not cross illegally; it seems arbitrary. But even for those parents who commit a misdemeanor by illegally entering the U.S. – because they want to protect their children from Central American gangs – the U.S. response seems to be in effect to kidnap youngsters.
If you or I commit a misdemeanor, we might lose our kids for a few days while we’re in jail, and then we’d get them back. But border-crossers serve a few days in jail for illegal entry – and after emerging from criminal custody, they still don’t get their kids back soon, said Lee Gelernt, an ACLU lawyer. In one case, he said, it has been eight months and the child still has not been returned.
It’s true that immigration policy is a nightmare, we can’t take everyone and almost no one advocates open borders. Some immigrants bring small children with them and claim to be the parent in hopes that this will spare them from detention.
Yet none of that should be an excuse for brutalizing children by ripping them away from their parents. I was at times ferociously critical of President Barack Obama’s handling of Central American refugees, but past administrations managed these difficult trade-offs without gratuitously embracing cruelty. One fruitful step has been to work with countries to curb gang violence that forces people to flee.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly hails family separation as a “tough deterrent” and shrugs that “the children will be taken care of – put into foster care or whatever.”
So what’s next, Mr. President? Minefields at the border would be an even more effective deterrent. Or East German-style marksmen in watch towers to shoot those who cross?
We as a nation should protect our borders. We must even more assiduously protect our soul.
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.