AMERICA, WE’VE OFFICIALLY HIT rock bottom.
It’s been a rapid descent since Donald Trump was elected president 18 months ago, but the horrific tales that emerged this weekend of migrant children — some as young as 1 year old — being forcibly separated from their parents is a new and unimaginable low.
Take the story of Esteban Pastor, a 28-year-old from Guatemala who was arrested last summer trying to cross the border with his 18-month-old son. He was seeking work in the United States to pay for his son’s medical care. “Your kid is going to go to a shelter,” agents told him, and added, “You’re going to jail,” as his son was taken away. Pastor begged to return to Guatemala. “Don’t separate us,” he pleaded, but to no avail. He wasn’t even told where his son was being held. “I cried. I begged,” Pastor said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “No one could tell me anything.”
Eventually, in October, Pastor was deported, but not with his child. All he was told as he prepared to board a flight home was, “Your son’s not going back today.” Thankfully, two months later the boy was finally sent back to Guatemala to be reunited with his father.
According to an ACLU lawsuit against the policy, a woman who immigrated from Honduras named Mirian was arrested, and her 18-month-old son was forcibly taken away from her.
“The immigration officers made me walk out with my son to a government vehicle and place my son in a car seat in a vehicle,” she later recounted. “My son was crying as I put him in the seat. I didn’t even have a chance to comfort my son, because the officers slammed the door shut as soon as he was in his seat.”
As a parent, trying to imagine Mirian’s heartbreak and anguish makes me almost physically ill. This is the ultimate nightmare for both parent and child — and it’s being perpetrated in each of our names by our government.
Since October, around 700 children have been separated from their parents. But this policy is being used not just against those trying to sneak into the country. Children are also being taken from those seeking asylum in the United States. Indeed, a Congolese woman with a 7-year-old daughter presented herself to border guards outside San Diego last November and expressed fear of facing persecution if she returned to Congo.
Though her claims were judged legitimate, her daughter was still taken from her and sent to a facility 2,000 miles away in Chicago.
Over the weekend, the president took to Twitter to claim that these family separations are the result of a “horrible law” that Democrats could end if they wanted to. This is, not surprisingly, a lie. It’s not a law. It’s a policy of the Trump administration. Indeed, just this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to San Diego to boast about it. “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
Chief of Staff John Kelly called the policy a “tough deterrent.” That’s the real reason this is happening — to cause anyone who wants to come to America, either by legal or illegal means, to think twice about trying to enter the United States with their children. Exceptions, I assume, will be made for those wanting to enter from Norway.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Trump’s comments is that, on some level, he seems to recognize the separation policy is so reprehensible that even he can’t fully defend it.
The reality, however, is that what’s happening at the border is completely consistent with a president who refers to undocumented immigrants as “animals,” says that children crossing the border are “not so innocent,” and angrily says of the US border, “We’re closed.”
Trump has created the climate of fear and xenophobia that allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and border agents to forcibly remove children from their parents and not recoil in horror at the order. It’s what allows Kelly, a father himself, to defend this barbaric policy with moral indifference. “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever,” he said earlier this month.
It’s all part and parcel of the systematic dehumanization of immigrants and refugees that has taken place since Trump took office — and which has collectively taken us to a place of national shame. Forcibly taking children from their parents can happen only when people view both parents and child as somehow less than human.
Perhaps the saddest part of this latest debasement by Trump and his cronies is that while rock bottom has been hit, if this administration can be relied on for anything, it’s that it will surely bring our nation to this depth again.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.