If you can believe the incredible irony of this, U.S Customs and Immigration has recently distributed a flyer at detention centers across the country asking this question—in English:
“Have You Been Separated from Your Child(ren)?”
Let’s parse this: the mere existence of the flyer indicates that parents are arriving at detention centers with no clue about their children’s whereabouts. And the push to continue separating children from their parents appears to have traction.
In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
Simplistic maxims such as Attorney General Sessions’ rarely take in actual reality.
Let’s parse the flyer further: Worried parents are advised to call one of two numbers, an information line at Detention Reporting or the Office of Refugee Resettlement Parent Hotline. The flyer states weakly: “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement may be able to help you locate your child(ren) if you become separated during the immigration process.”
Now the italics on “may” are mine. But if I were an immigrant parent and if my English was good enough to distinguish the difference between “may” and “can”—the one word suggesting possibility and the other expressing actual ability—I wouldn’t feel bolstered by the tepid sentiment that maybe ICE will be able to help you find your kid(s).
Perhaps you, like me, find that separating children from their parents and then funneling them into temporary housing is a draconian policy, cruel and inhumane. But what are these centers like? Are the kids getting three square and exercise?
Senator Jeffrey Merkley (D-Ore) toured the McAllen, Texas Processing Center and described what he saw. He cited hundreds of children locked up in “big cages made out of fencing and then wire and nets stretched across the top of them so people can’t climb out of them.” In some parts of the facility, he said, “it’s just a concrete floor and people are being given these space blankets to sleep on.”
He also gained access to a processing center where children were being held, and said the holding area “looked like a dog kennel.” Rep. Pramila Jaypal, a Washington Democrat, similarly brought public attention to this crisis when she visited a detention center near Seattle and reported that women there told her they had been denied clean water and subjected to verbal abuse. One woman told her that a Border Patrol agent said: “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here. You won’t have a family anymore.”
Of course you could argue that Merkley and Jaypal, both Democrats, are playing a political game, demonizing the creators of policies that are meant to protect citizens. So let’s get closer to the source. As if book-ending Jeff Sessions’ comments, DOJ spokesman, Devin O’Malley, speaking to NPR host, Mary Louise Kelly, explains that, yes, while this policy was intermittently followed during the Obama administration, its use—and the zero-tolerance aspect of it, in place since early April, is a different application.
O’Malley says, “Well, the zero tolerance policy [is] a new policy as of April 6, 2018. There were variations of zero tolerance that were implemented in the prior administration in certain sectors along the border. But this was not a policy that they implemented across the southwest border, if that helps clarify.”
And, of course, it does clarify. The United States is now routinely separating families, sending children into what appear to be substandard and likely unsafe holding quarters and signaling that parent may be able to find out where their kid(s) are—if they call a few numbers. No secrets here; the Administration has actually confirmed this.
But citizens of our great country may want to ask ourselves—and demand of our elected leaders: is this who we want to be? Is this the best we can do?
I believe, as one among many compassionate and reasonable citizens, that we can do better—much better—than this.