John Whitehead's Commentary
Caging Children, Separating Families: Has the War on Immigration Gone Too Far?
“Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest—forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries.” ― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand.
This is one of those moments.
There are some acts so wrong-headed, so immoral, and so inhumane that they simply cannot be defended on any grounds.
Be warned: the White House’s new “zero tolerance policy” for separating undocumented parents from their children at the border as a way of discouraging illegal immigration is pushing us into dangerous territory morally and otherwise.
Dragging young children kicking and crying and screaming from their parents, separating those children from their parents indefinitely, locking those children up in cages (“dog kennels”) like animals, and subjecting them to the predators of the American police state: these are acts that no decent people should tolerate from their government.
In McAllen, Texas, undocumented migrant children are being held in cages made out of wire and net. These children are sleeping on concrete floors with thin foil “space blankets” for a mattress.
In Brownsville, Texas, reportedly more than 1,000 children who have been separated from their parents are being held in a former Walmart facility with blacked-out windows that has been transformed into a detention center and is being run by a government contractor.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal got a chance to speak briefly with some of the migrant women being held at a federal detention facility near Seattle who had been forcibly separated from their children. Jayapal recounts:
Thirty to 40 percent of these women came with children who had been forcibly taken away from them. None got a chance to say goodbye to their children—they were forcibly taken away. One said she was deceived, because they were in detention together. Then the CBP officers told her she was going out to get her photograph taken. When she came back, she was put in a different room, and she never got to see the child again. Some of them said they could hear their children screaming for them in the next room. The children ranged anywhere from one to teenagers.
Bear in mind, there is no bedtime story for these children.
There are no parents nearby to protect them from the things that go bump in the night.
There is no assurance that they will ever be reunited with their parents again.
You who are reading this, hold tight to your own children. They won’t be yours for long if the government is allowed to prevail in its view that children of undocumented “criminals” automatically become wards of the state.
The government’s rationale goes like this: illegal immigrants are criminals who should be jailed; criminals in jail don’t get to keep their kids; therefore, illegal immigrants shouldn’t get to keep their kids, either.
Wait and see.
Allow the government to inflict this kind of terror on other people’s children, and it won’t be long before you and yours find yourselves in the government’s crosshairs.
Allow the government to strip naturalized persons of their citizenship under trumped up pretexts (yet another tactic being proposed by the White House), and it won’t be long before your own citizenship hangs in the balance.
Allow the government to treat whomever it pleases with disrespect and an utter disregard for the rule of law, and it won’t be long before your rights are also being disrespected.
Whether you’re talking about weapons of war used abroad or police state tactics deployed against enemy combatants, these methods always come home to roost.
So if you’re inclined to advance this double standard because you believe you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, beware: there’s always a boomerang effect.
Whatever dangerous practices you allow the government to carry out now—whether it’s in the name of national security or protecting America’s borders or making America great again—rest assured, these same practices can and will be used against you when the government decides to set its sights on you.
Indeed, it’s just a short hop, skip and a jump from the government stripping undocumented “criminals” of their parental rights to the government meting out the same treatment to American citizens.
After all, in this era of overcriminalization in the American police state, we are all guilty of breaking at least three laws a day without even knowing it.
We are all at risk.
With good reason, the policy of caging children has been widely denounced, with the United Nations human rights office calling for the U.S. to immediately halt the practice.
All along the border, parents without proof of U.S. residency and/or citizenship are finding their families snatched up and shoved into an already overburdened system that sees them not as human beings but as numbers in a system, quotas and units.
Between October 2017 and April 2018, more than 700 hundred families were torn apart with parents being separated from their children. This includes more than a hundred children under the age of four.
Nearly 700 children were separated from their parents between May 6-19, 2018.
There are now over 10,000 migrant children in government custody in 100 U.S. shelters in 14 states.
All 10,000 of these children have been forcibly separated from their parents.
These 100 shelters are already “at 95% capacity and are expected to add thousands of bed spaces in the coming weeks.” The government has also considered housing these children on military bases.
Historically, the U.S. has granted asylum to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence, especially women with children.
That clemency is being upended by a hard-line approach to immigration that treats anyone who approaches our borders for sanctuary—whether or not they have a legitimate case to plead—as criminals.
Just recently, in a severe break with U.S. policy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered immigration judges to stop granting asylum to most victims of domestic abuse and gang violence, a move that will block tens of thousands of individuals from looking to America as a safe haven.
So much for the words of welcome etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Clearly, the American Police State is no home for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Worse, it is fast becoming a living nightmare for those who hoped for a chance at a better life for their children and instead now find themselves at the mercy of government bureaucrats, politicians and contractors whose profit margins depend on keeping larger numbers of people incarcerated.
Thanks to the Trump Administration’s “100% prosecution” policy, these families are being torn apart without any chance at a due process hearing to assess their plea for asylum or any hope of keeping their children in their custody and under their protection.
In fact, the government is labeling any child who arrives at the border with an undocumented family member as “unaccompanied.”
What this means is that, for all intents and purposes, that child will become the property of the U.S. government to do with as it wills the moment its family crosses the border.
We all know what happens to children who are left alone to fend for themselves: there are predators of every sort, many of them on the government’s payroll, looking to prey upon the young and vulnerable.
In too many cases, these children are being trafficked, lost by the system, and rendered beyond the reach of their families. As the New Yorker recounts, “Reports have surfaced of children, some as young as toddlers, being wrested from family members, and of parents being deported before they could locate their children, who remain stranded in the U.S.”
To Jeff Sessions, the government’s policy is cut and dried: “If people don't want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them,” he warned. “If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring him across the border illegally.”
It’s easy to say, perhaps.
For those with a moral conscience and a less self-righteous attitude, it’s harder to put such a dehumanizing policy into practice.
It’s particularly hard to swallow the government’s claim that it is doing all of this in the best interest of the migrant children. Remember, this is the same government that “lost” 1,475 migrant children within its care over a three-month period, in some cases handing them off to human traffickers.
Under President Obama’s watch, migrant children were allegedly beaten, threatened with sexual violence and repeatedly assaulted while under the care of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials. According to Newsweek, “Border authorities were accused of kicking a child in the ribs and forcing a 16-year-old girl to ‘spread her legs’ for an aggressive body search. Other children accused officers of punching a child in the head three times, running over a 17-year-old boy and denying medical care to a pregnant teen, who later had a stillbirth.”
The government’s track record doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in its ability to act in loco parentis for these children.
While illegal immigration is a problem that must be addressed, forcibly separating migrant children from their parents, transferring custody of them to the U.S. government, and caging them indefinitely in dog kennels cannot be the solution.
The law of reciprocity applies here.
I’m referring to the Golden Rule, which is found in nearly every world religion, including Judaism and Christianity. It means that we should treat others as we would have them treat us.
In other words, if you don’t want to be locked up in a prison cell or a detention camp—if you don’t want to be discriminated against because of the color of your race, religion, politics or anything else that sets you apart from the rest—if you don’t want your loved ones shot at, strip searched, tasered, beaten and treated like slaves—if you don’t want to have to be constantly on guard against government eyes watching what you do, where you go and what you say—if you don’t want to be tortured, waterboarded or forced to perform degrading acts—if you don’t want your children to be forcibly separated from you, caged and lost—then don’t allow these evils to be inflicted on anyone else, no matter how tempting the reason or how fervently you believe in the cause.
Too often, those who claim to be pro-life and pro-family are only pro-life and pro-family when it suits their politics and when the lives and families in question are deemed worthy enough of protecting.
Certainly, such an attitude flies in the face of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, whose parents—immigrants seeking asylum with a child in tow—risked their lives to keep their family together. That child would grow up to command his followers to care for the “least of these” (the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned).
Christian theology aside, you don’t have to be religious to recognize the need for caution, compassion and common sense in how the government administers its immigration policies.
Those who cannot remember the past, warned philosopher George Santayana, are condemned to repeat it.
We are walking a dangerous path right now.
Those screams of the migrant children being wrenched out of their mothers’ arms is a warning.
As U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal explains, the mothers being held in detention centers didn’t realize what was happening when they were torn from their children. “In most cases, they were taken into a different room like, ‘Here we’re going take your photograph.’ Then after the photo was taken, they were taken to a different room from their child. So they never got to say goodbye.”
There have been other mothers in other detention centers in other police states who didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. They, too, never got to say goodbye.
Eva Kor was 10 years old in 1944 when she and her twin sister were ripped from their mother’s arms and forcibly separated from their older sisters and parents, who were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. “All I remember is her arms stretched out in despair as she was pulled away. I never even got to say goodbye,” Kor recounted.
This is how evil triumphs.
The slippery slope to the gas chambers starts when good people remain silent in the face of evil.
The horrors of the Nazi concentration camps weren’t kept secret from the German people. They were well-publicized. As The Guardian reports:
The mass of ordinary Germans did know about the evolving terror of Hitler's Holocaust... They knew concentration camps were full of Jewish people who were stigmatised as sub-human and race-defilers. They knew that these, like other groups and minorities, were being killed out of hand. They knew that Adolf Hitler had repeatedly forecast the extermination of every Jew on German soil. They knew these details because they had read about them. They knew because the camps and the measures which led up to them had been prominently and proudly reported step by step in thousands of officially-inspired German media articles and posters… The reports, in newspapers and magazines all over the country were phases in a public process of "desensitisation" which worked all too well, culminating in the killing of 6m Jews….
Likewise, the mass of ordinary Americans are fully aware of the Trump Administration’s efforts to stigmatize and dehumanize any and all who do not fit with the government’s plans for this country.
So when Sessions suggests that the government’s child separation policy is just the government doing its job to fight illegal immigration, don’t buy it.
This is not about illegal immigration.
It’s about power and control.
It’s about testing the waters to see how far the American people will allow the government to go in re-shaping the country in the image of a totalitarian police state.
It’s about how much evil “we the people” will tolerate before we find our conscience and our voice.
Hannah Arendt, a Holocaust survivor who reported on the war crimes trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, a senior officer who organized Hitler’s death camps, denounced Eichmann not because he was evil per se but because he was a bureaucrat who unquestioningly carried out orders that were immoral, inhumane and evil. His defense? He was just doing his job.
This willingness to obey immoral instructions unthinkingly, to march in lockstep with tyrants, to mindlessly perpetuate acts of terror and inhumanity, and to justify it all as just “doing one’s job,” Arendt concluded in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, was the banality of evil.
The question we should be asking is not whether a particular government’s actions are legal but whether they are moral and just.
As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out 55 years ago in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”
In other words, there comes a time when law and order are in direct opposition to justice.
It’s time to draw that line in the sand.
What we are experiencing right now are the first stages of a desensitization campaign aimed at lulling us into a false sense of security.
As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, there is worse to come.
The treatment being meted out to undocumented migrants and their children is only the beginning.
This is the start of the slippery slope.
Martin Niemöller understood this. A Lutheran minister and early Nazi supporter who was later imprisoned for opposing Hitler's regime, Niemoller warned:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
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