Samantha Schmidt in the March 7 issue of The Washington Post reported, “In an attempt to deter illegal immigration from Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security is considering separating children from parents caught crossing the border, Secretary John Kelly said Monday on CNN. The proposal would result in detention for the parent while any accompanying children would be placed in the care of the government or sent to live with any relatives in the United States.” Explaining his reasoning to Wolf Blitzer, Kelly said, “I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up from Mexico.”
Every day elicits from me another gasp as the Trump administration demonstrates over and over again a complete lack of human compassion or even of attempts to understand the cruelty of their various proposals: to destroy healthcare for the poor, to deny women coverage for reproductive health, to question why men should have to pay for insurance that covers prenatal care, to suggest that the poor don’t really want health care, to suggest that the poor should give up expensive cellphones so that they can pay for health care, and on and on.
I have tried to read and listen, tried to figure out what goes on inside the heads and hearts of the men (and they are mostly rich white men) as they gather to discuss and plan ways to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, all in the name of saving money and demolishing “big government.” I struggle against hopeless cynicism and despair, not only about Trump’s administration and its proposed policies but also about my faith in the basic goodness of human beings who hold positions of power.
Kelly’s statements about separating parents (mostly mothers) from their children in the name of deterrence left me literally wordless. I couldn’t help imagining a conference room full of Homeland Security officials calmly discussing Kelly’s proposal. Of course we don’t have the transcript, but I try to imagine what was going in their heads as they seriously considered ripping traumatized refugee kids from their equally stressed mothers. These women are trying to protect their children by escaping from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras where the dangers of gang-related violence, forced gang recruitment, extortion, poverty and lack of opportunity make the dangers of fleeing to seek asylum pale in comparison.
Having survived a perilous journey from countries where they lived in imminent danger from ruthless gangs and corrupt governments, probably having been further traumatized by the craven coyotes whom they paid to guide them to the illegal border crossing, having made it through hunger and thirst and even sexual abuse, they arrive on American soil only to be forcibly separated. This inhuman move on the part of U.S. government agents would supposedly deter other mothers from attempting the perilous journey with their children.
How can humans being actually consider such a proposal? How can a room full of federal officials seriously discuss with one another an idea so counter to everything we supposedly stand for, to the family values the Republicans like to trumpet, to the universal concept of sanctuary? How can these officials, part of an administration whose leaders claim a Judeo-Christian heritage (with an emphasis in this administration on “Christian”) propose and defend the idea of separating children from their mothers, turning them over to government agents or relatives and immediately deporting their mothers? Where in the Gospels, in the words of Jesus, in the larger ethos of human compassion can they find justification? These women seeking asylum represent no threat to our safety. This proposal, however, represents a threat to the ethical center of American ideals.
I want to hope that at least one voice in that room full of Homeland Security officials spoke up to suggest the essential wrongness, the immorality, the cruelty of this proposal. When asked if he worried that public opinion might be outraged, Kelly said he would do anything to stop this flow of traffic. The Washington Post referred to “Barbara Hines, an immigration law expert, who argues that it shouldn’t have to be a choice between detention or separation — families should be released from the beginning. She also argued that such a policy change probably would do nothing to deter women from crossing the border illegally with their children.”
“The experts have established that when people are fearing for their lives, what is going to happen at the border is not going to deter them. The women that I’ve seen over the last two years are fleeing for their lives,” Hines said. “They’ve gone through such incredible trauma in their home countries.” Separating them from their children, she said, would be “unthinkable.”
The Washington Post article also quoted the American Academy of Pediatrics, a credible source of wisdom about children: “Federal authorities must exercise caution to ensure that the emotional and physical stress children experience as they seek refuge in the United States is not exacerbated by the additional trauma of being separated from their siblings, parents or other relatives and caregivers.”
I assume that some of the officials in the discussion with Kelly are parents, fathers, maybe some mothers (although I cringe to think of any mother agreeing to this proposal). Kelly himself raised three children, one of whom died in action in Afghanistan, so he knows the grief of losing a child. How many others in that room have children whom they love and cherish? Why is it so difficult to demand of people in positions of power that they seek to understand and perhaps, although it may be asking too much of the rich and powerful, to empathize with the least who seek to be among us? What elements of power and comfort deaden human feelings or defend the old argument that reason must override sympathy; that promoting fear of the other makes us safer in the long run? Or even more cynical, Kelly’s suggestion that concern for the safety of the fleeing mothers and children justifies making object lessons of those who have already made it to what they hope is safety?
I just don’t understand. I realize that there are so many other outrages: the denigration of the truth; the blatant misogyny of a president who claims he respects women; the attempts by a party that valorizes the importance of the individual over government to strip women of control of their reproductive freedom; that talks up motherhood and family values while stripping the poor and middle class families of health care; that parades the nanny-supported motherhood of wives and daughters who go “to work” in designer outfits. I am outraged daily by all of these assaults on reason and emotion.
I am, however, particularly outraged by this particular story. I am not even sure that this proposal will be enacted. I hope it is not; I hope there are people in power who will share the outrage I and others feel. I make this story the topic of this blog because it seems to me a potent, pathetic example of what is happening in our country today. I am no Pollyanna. I understand that politics are not usually informed by high moral standards and that moral views can differ, as they do around the abortion issues. I just can’t stop thinking about that conference room full of Homeland officials listening to John Kelly propose this draconian measure. I can’t stop hoping that someone stood up and cried out in protest at the very idea of ripping children from their mothers just as they begin to think they are safe to claim asylum in the land of the free and home of the brave. If anything will push me over the edge into a morass of cynicism and despair about my membership in the human community, implementation of Kelly’s inhumane and cruel proposal to rip apart the bond between mothers and their children certainly will.