Ms. L, as the American Civil Liberties Union identified her, is a Congolese woman who sought asylum in the United States last November. She feared imminent death amid the escalating violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, violence that has displaced millions of residents. I learned about her circumstance reading Rex Huppke’s columns in the Chicago Tribune earlier this year. He wrote about Ms. L because President Trump’s immigration policy separated her from her six-year-old daughter, who ended up in Chicago. Ms. L was in San Diego. Both were essentially incarcerated.
Ms. L was not an undocumented immigrant. She arrived in California out of fear for her daughter’s life and her own. She complied with every procedure. Yet despite persuading immigration officials that their plight was real, the two were separated and held by the government – the daughter, “S.S.,” housed in a Chicago Health and Human Services facility while her mother was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE. No reason was given. When the ACLU filed suit to reunite them, Homeland Security argued that there was insufficient proof that Ms. L was the mother, and that there were fears of human trafficking. Only after four months of separation and a DNA test were they finally reunited. S.S. was then seven years old. Her mother had missed her birthday.
I’m not even a parent yet, and her story makes me physically ill. For all the frankness and shock value inherent in American political coverage, so often we avoid calling things as we see them. It is too rash, too ill advised, we are told, to label something with blunt terms, lest we set the conversation askew – or, Heaven forbid, lose access to a certain politician.
This is a presidency that calls for strong language. Trump uses a different brand of speech, a rhetoric dominated by gaslighting and laced with overt appeals to the misplaced cultural resentment of white Americans. The Trump policy of immigrant family separation is evil made flesh. Perhaps there are other words to describe a government doing this to an asylum seeker and her young child – or any immigrant, for that matter – but “evil” would be the most precise.
As we in journalism and the public at large continue to debate the utility and accuracy of labeling Trump’s statements as “lies,” we should speak in clear terms about what he does. No president in recent memory was so conspicuously elected to fortify white supremacy. Yet we see his efforts consistently discussed in a manner akin to how one might talk about routine infrastructure bills (remember those?). It is a disservice to the American public to use qualifiers that serve to mute Trump’s cruelty, especially when human decency is so clearly being violated. It may seem minor to think about what we label things like immigrant family separation. In both the instances of the president’s lies and the evil of his policies, it does us no good to be subtle.
In that light, I should note that this is a top story again thanks to a misunderstanding of a recent report from The New York Times’ Ron Nixon. The story detailed the revelations of the April 26th testimony from Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary for children and families for HHS. As Wagner noted, he oversees the Office for Refugee Resettlement, the government entity in charge of placing unaccompanied (or separated) immigrant minors with family or sponsors. Wagner told the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee that from October 2017 until the end of the year, his office had tried and failed to keep track of 1,475 of the children it had placed.
A column about the issue caught fire on the Internet, and soon, “lost track of” became just “lost” – as if the children had been a) separated from parents; they weren’t; and b) misplaced like so many sets of keys. This was wrong. Little consideration, outside of reporter correctives, was given to the fact that many of the children and their sponsors may have been trying to avoid detection for fear of deportation. But out of that confusion and outrage, the hashtag #WhereAreTheChildren was born, and overdue attention was paid to the issue of family separation. Suddenly, we started seeing images of prison buses for immigrant babies, complete with infant car seats to take them safely away from their parents.
Caitlin Dickerson of the Times provided one deeply disturbing example of this nearly a week before her colleague Nixon reported on Wagner’s testimony. One 30-year-old woman, identified as “Mirian,” fled government violence in Honduras and sought refuge in the States with her 18-month-old boy. After submitting paperwork proving her Honduran citizenship and relationship to her child, ICE told her that they were separating the two of them. They would both end up in Texas, but separated by more than 100 miles for months. “My son was crying as I put him in the seat,” she stated in a sworn declaration in federal court. “I did not even have a chance to try to comfort my son… the officers slammed the door shut as soon as he was in his seat. I was crying, too. I cry even now when I think about that moment when the border officers took my son away.”
This evil being done in all of our names is intended to serve a limited audience. A new study from political scientists Steven V. Miller and Nicholas T. Davis, of Clemson and Texas A&M respectively, titled “White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy,” reveals, as NBC News reported, “a correlation between white Americans’ intolerance, and support for authoritarian rule. In other words, when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy.”
In the article’s headline, this is mischaracterized as “the Trump effect,” suggesting this behavior began with him. The trauma caused by the wanton separation of families to maintain white advantage is baked into the American experiment. In a nation with slavery and genocide in its bones, we cannot afford to act as if this is unprecedented.
One of Trump’s constant themes has been the ease of immigrant assimilation, treating cultural difference (from Eurocentric norms) as something to be eradicated. What he is attempting seems like a clumsier version of the Americanization movement, highlighted by the use of Native American boarding schools in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, in which children were forced to leave the reservation and learn how to be their best white selves. While nothing is slavery but slavery, it is difficult to make this country whiter again without cribbing some notes from how slavers worked to break their captives by eradicating their ties to their heritage and family traditions. Immigrant family separation is a contemporary version of these policies.
This is all happening on purpose. The Washington Post first reported on this policy in late December, despite border crossings hitting a 46-year low that month. Trump’s administration was then just “considering” separating families entering the United States at the southern border as a conscious deterrent against illegal immigration. From Ms. L’s case, we know that they were already doing this, at least with asylum seekers. The administration also did a pilot test in the El Paso section of the border late last year that they claimed reduced border crossings at the location by 64 percent – when, in actuality, they went up by 64 percent in that same time. (In case that wasn’t clear, that statement qualifies as a lie.)
Nevertheless, Attorney General Jeff Sessions formalized the policy on May 7th, warning potential border crossers: “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.” (The law doesn’t require that, actually.) The issue got a little more notice the next week when White House Chief of Staff John Kelly infamously told NPR that undocumented immigrants “don’t integrate well, they don’t have skills” and that family separation wasn’t cruel and callous because “the children will be taken care of – put into foster care or whatever.”
The inhumanity of the policy dripped from every public pronouncement, underscoring the sick motive inherent in it. If you are planning to interrupt Trump’s American whitewashing project by daring to bring your brown or black self to these shores, then you should know that it will hurt.
The United States treating immigrants like garbage is not unique to the Trump administration, as the ACLU proved last week when they released a report detailing a “culture of impunity” within U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security that shrugged at physical and emotional abuses within the immigration system. Photos of immigrant children sleeping in fenced cages made their way onto social media. That all happened under Obama, who deported more undocumented immigrants than the three presidents who preceded him combined. Despite Obama’s open compassion for the plight of refugees, there was always a heartlessness in his application of immigration law. That said, he didn’t weaponize the flaws in our immigration system as Trump has.
Strangely enough, despite his irrational immigration demands, Trump himself doesn’t want to take credit for his own policy of family separation. He instead blamed the Democrats in a Memorial Day weekend tweet for the “horrible law.” It isn’t a law, nor the fault of the Democrats. It’s his edict, articulated by his attorney general and chief of staff. House Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows, a staunch conservative, signaled on Sunday that there is bipartisan support behind eliminating the policy. Let’s hope that wasn’t just a sound bite to quell the furor. We have yet to see this Republican Congress get perturbed by much outside of Robert Mueller’s investigation, so I don’t expect them to suddenly transform into crusaders for human rights.
It will take a public uproar beyond a weekend of hashtagging to get this Congress to pressure Trump and Sessions to abandon this evil policy. Calling it what it is may be, quite literally, the least we can do.