Once a Champion of Human Rights, America Now Inhumanly Separates Migrant Children from Parents
The country’s falling-off — its ethical-moral falling-off — continues. Consider:
America, the country that spearheaded the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights within the nascent United Nations in the aftermath of World War II — which historic document, chaired by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, guarantees the dignity of every human being, whether citizen or migrant — now, because of a new Trump administration policy of separating migrant children from their parents, America has been called out by the U.N.’s Office of Human Rights for violating said Declaration (also here). Another ideal sacked.
But quite apart from sacked ideals, there is the awful trauma now consuming these children, some as young as one year old. And there is the awful trauma consuming their parents: A distraught father, his child forcibly taken from him last weekend, took his own life.
When did America become so cruel? Conscientious Americans are loudly protesting (also here and here), while the world loudly condemns us as a nation. What is almost unbearable to imagine — the anguish and trauma inflicted on child and parent when torn from each other’s arms — is now sanctioned by official U.S. policy.
This policy, announced April 6 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is response to Pres. Trump’s campaign rhetoric to crack down on illegal immigration. In a statement aimed at those illegally crossing the Southwest border, Sessions announced a ramped-up “zero tolerance” policy, now to entail criminal prosecution. Whereas earlier illegal border crossers faced civil deportation proceedings, the new policy of criminal penalties necessitates detention, thus forcing the separation of families for months or longer. On May 7, Sessions underscored the family separation policy: “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law.” Even those seeking legal asylum are treated cruelly: Sessions just announced that those fleeing gang violence or domestic abuse do not qualify for asylum.
How many families have been separated? Hard official numbers are hard to come by. Reuters days ago reported 1,800 families separated in the 17 months through February, when the “lite” version of this policy was piloted. The only other official numbers provided cover a two-week period in May, when officials confirmed 658 children were separated from 638 adults. Between October and April, per The New York Times, separations included 100 children between the ages of four and one.
With the more draconian policy now in place, these numbers will no doubt rise. [Update June 15: Almost 2,000 children have been separated from their parents in the April 19-May 31 period of the crackdown, according to figures obtained this date by the Associated Press from the Department of Homeland Security. These separations are not broken down by age.]
By no means is this to say that secure borders and controlling illegal immigration are not top-priority; they most definitely are. But must migrant children be separated from their parents? U.S. policy before the new draconian policy allowed detention of families intact. Why cannot that more humane policy continue?
In response, the administration would likely point to the policy’s intended objective: to serve as a disincentive to those contemplating migrating here with children. But recent reporting shows this disincentive is not working: The illegal migrant flow, while declining overall, continues because of political and gang violence in the migrants’ home countries. In response to public outcry, the administration now is floating a new proposal — to detain the migrant children in tent cities on military bases. But this move is moot, as families would still be separated, not reunited.
Therefore, this appeal from the conscientious public: For the sake of these children and their parents, human beings all, let us stop the trauma, also stop desecrating our ideals, and default to the prior — humane — policy: keeping migrant families intact.
(One wonders if White America acquiesces to the separation of migrant children from parents because the beings in question are brown-skinned…? A scathing op-ed in The Guardian asserts that inflicting such trauma “is the whole point.”)
In its condemnation of the U.S., the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, in Geneva, exhorts the U.S. to immediately halt the practice of separating families “and stop criminalizing what should at most be an administrative offence — that of irregular entry or stay in the U.S.” The practice of separating families, it says, “amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child.” Significantly, it goes on:
“While the rights of children are generally held in high regard in the U.S., it is the only country in the world not to have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. We encourage it to accede to the Convention and to fully respect the rights of all children.”
In response, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, skirted the subject entirely and attacked the U.N. itself, claiming that its “ignorantly” attacking the U.S. is proof of “hypocrisy” and alleging “reprehensible human rights records” of other countries sitting on the Human Rights Council, adding defiantly, “Neither the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders.” But as Human Rights Watch points out, “Yes, the U.S. does have a right to protect its borders — but not by trampling the rights of vulnerable families and children.”
Of course Trump blames blowback to his policy on Democrats and their “bad legislation” — a baseless claim. Democratic senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon tried to enter a detention center to observe the children’s situation, but was turned away (also here). More recently Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, with 31 colleagues, introduced the “Keep Families Together Act” to halt the separation of migrant families at the border. And the A.C.L.U. has filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court calling for a halt to the policy and for family reunification.
But political and legal churn aside, focus must be kept on the human — on the cruelty of the child separation policy. Are there no parents in the Trump administration repelled by the idea — now wrenching reality — of children torn from their parent’s arms? This “idea” originated with Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly when he was secretary of Homeland Security, but was dismissed as too extreme and immoral. Somehow whatever moral scruples there are in this administration were overcome. Meanwhile, whatever happened to the Republicans — party of “family values”?
In his tragedy “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare lamented “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power.” Remorse, or compassion, must be rejoined with power, in this instance and more generally — or, ultimately and tragically, America is lost.
[Note: Another moral lapse — torture, which America began engaging in as of 2004 — was also condemned by the United Nations, but by its Committee Against Torture, not its Human Rights Commission. In addition to the administration’s new migrant family separation policy, the HRC also condemned Pres. Trump’s recent characterization of Haiti and African nations as “s***hole” countries.]