The base sentiment behind the administration’s immigration policies — fear — is perfectly understandable. Fear is instinctual; fear keeps us alive; fear motivates us to react rather than reason. Yet when it comes to how this country is treating migrant children, fear has pushed us to establish a policy that allows certain children, based solely on their immigration status, to be treated slightly better than a dog catcher treats a stray.
From the Border Patrol threatening children with stun guns, to Health and Human Services officials losing track of migrant children, to the current administration’s support of splitting up children and their parents and warehousing children in kennel-like cells, we have to face it: We are locking up these kids because we are afraid of them.
The reality is that these children are the ones truly living in fear — and justifiably so. Most have traveled all the way from Central America to escape violence or the aftermath of catastrophic natural disasters like the volcano eruption that has recently ravaged parts of Guatemala. On their journey, they travel through “enemy territory,” where they face the threats of robbery, death by exposure and gangs that try to sell them into sex or labor trafficking. They do this because of what this country offers: A beacon of hope and a promise of safety.
But when they arrive, these children are being kept in cages, where they sleep with thin Mylar blankets on concrete floors, and the administration defends these conditions as necessary to maintain control and security. However, there is no tangible, practical way that caging children like animals enhances our security.
The administration also claims deterrence is a reason for the separation policy. Even if that were the case, there are still moral lines to be drawn: We live in a democratic nation and we do not cut off hands for theft, we do not stone individuals for adultery and we have policies against torturing even those who have committed the most heinous crimes regardless of whether any of that would deter immoral or criminal behavior (studies suggest that the effect on crime is marginal at best). We stand as a nation against persecution and torture, and have taken the moral high ground in calling out those countries that still engage in these practices. Certainly, the mistreatment of children belongs with these policies that America rightfully condemns.
However, this policy isn’t really based on public safety or deterrence. Like much of President Trump’s policies, it is based on two rhetorical strategies: Hyperbole and fear-mongering.
For example, in a campaign speech, then-candidate Trump stated that “people are coming in … [and] … tremendous crime [is] taking place. It’s like a crime wave. It’s one of the most dangerous places on earth.” Nothing in this statement is true. What is true is that the president was elected in part by paying attention to polling that demonstrated deep anxiety and anger about immigration throughout the nation — which he has directly translated into his immigration policy.
Immigration is one of the most complicated and divisive issues in American politics. In some ways, it is a uniquely American phenomenon: Except for the 2 percent or so of Americans who can trace their ancestry to Native Americans, we all have ties to immigration. Still, for reasons including identity, economy and security, Americans hold diverse positions on what our immigration policy should be. These divisions can create strong gridlock when Congress attempts to pass any immigration policy — as demonstrated by Congress’ continued struggle to pass a DREAMer bill.
Still, though the administration has characterized the separated families as threats, many of them are trying to request asylum at official ports of entry, following the protocol established by the law.
The administration’s family separation policy violates both American and international laws on how to treat asylum-seekers and children in general. The policy is so abhorrent that last week, the United Nations stepped in and called for the immediate halt to the separation of children and parents at the border. Contrary to what President Trump has claimed via Twitter, no law — American or otherwise — requires the separation of families or the caging of children.
Our society and our Supreme Court have recognized time and again that children are different from adults. They are different in the context of the education system, they are different in the context of the criminal justice system and they are certainly different in the context of the immigration system. They are uniquely vulnerable and malleable; a single traumatic incident can irreparably harm a child’s brain. Breaking up families can cause toxic stress that can change the course of these children’s lives.
They may not be your children. They may not have entered the country legally. But separating children from their parents and placing them in kennel-like conditions is offensive to basic notions of human dignity. Treating children this way is not a partisan issue; it is an American one. And all Americans, whether they are Republican or Democrat, should reject it.
Image credit: Stephanie Kenner