Jamil Smith: Family Separation Never Really Ended
There are many Bryan Stevenson quotes to live by, but there is one that I keep at my desk. The civil rights attorney who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, published a book in 2014 called Just Mercy. In the introduction, Stevenson notes that his work with the poor and incarcerated introduced him to this maxim: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
The quote reminds me not merely of the people I often write about, but it helps me maintain a degree of faith that humanity can, overall, self-correct. But this week was yet another period that had me wondering whether any single man or woman can ever supersede the evil that is still being done to the migrants who travel to our nation’s southern border.
This is a week in which you could not be blamed for considering Maria Liza Meza Castro lucky. The Honduran mother was pictured in a widely circulated Reuters photograph pulling her twin girls in diapers away from tear gas fired by U.S. border patrol agents. But at least she still has her five children. Had Meza exercised her legal right to petition for asylum or crossed the border illegally, there is a chance that she may have been separated from her kids.
Two days after we first saw that horrifying image, ProPublica reported that there are at least 17 new instances of immigrant families separated from their children — despite the official end of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy in June. The president’s executive order reversed his administration’s policy of prosecuting undocumented immigrants who cross the border with children — or even just apply for asylum — and placing those kids into holding facilities like the tent camp in Tornillo, Texas. He was ordered by a federal judge to reunite the families that he’d broken apart.
The official explanation for the new separations? The government claims that it is punishing parents suspected of criminal activity. There was reason to suspect that this was happening, and not just because Trump is known to renege on his promises. The ProPublica report follows one from Amnesty International last month that noted one strategy for separation that persists: the government breaking apart families at ports of entry by claiming, seemingly without justification, that they aren’t really families. As Vox’s Dara Lind reported in October, grandparents separated from grandchildren and cases of “fraud,” as determined by Customs and Border Control, aren’t counted as separations.
News about the revival of family separations is but one of many troubling immigration stories to emerge in the past week. Last Saturday, Trump announced that Mexico has agreed to a new plan that likely won’t pass legal muster: make asylum petitioners remain in Mexico while their cases are processed. The independent autopsy of detainee Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez, a 33-year-old transgender woman from Honduras who died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, revealed that she suffered physical abuse before her death. Rather than a more constructive solution — such as working to rectify the terrifying, American-influenced conditions these migrants are fleeing — soldiers at the border will become a rotational force, further exploiting the U.S. military to justify Trump’s “caravan” scare. Sunday’s tear-gas violence in Tijuana spotlighted the plight of migrants there: waiting for months just to apply for asylum.
Trump wasn’t really called to account for any of this. He only mentioned family separations to lie about the policy, responding to a 60 Minutes segment with a misleading tirade about his predecessor, Barack Obama. A CBS News reporter, Paula Reid, corrected the president to his face even as he ignored her. Trump will still do untold damage to people’s lives before he faces any kind of real accountability from a new Democratic majority that has promised to investigate the administration’s human rights abuses at the border and in its detention camps.
Lord knows that there are many worthy contenders for Worst Thing That Donald Trump Has Ever Done, but it is difficult to see how anything captures the essence of his cruelty like the incarceration of immigrant children separated from their families by his government. Especially since it seems as though it is still going on, quiet as it’s kept. How can you ever be more than the worst thing you have ever done if you don’t stop doing it?