The night my daughter was born a nurse took her away for a check-up, promising to return her at midnight. I woke with a jolt at 12.05, and when I noticed that the bassinet next to me was still empty I panicked. The pain of our separation was visceral, which was odd to me because I knew my daughter was close by and also I didn’t know her at all. She was a few hours old and a stranger to me.
We were soon reunited and I had completely forgotten about the incident until recently. But over the past few weeks, I have been reading with mounting horror about the parents forcibly separated from their children under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy.
I read about the US border guard accused of tearing a baby away from her mother, a Honduran woman in immigration detention, while she was breastfeeding. The woman was handcuffed when she resisted. I read about a two-year-old alone in a migrant shelter who was crying inconsolably for her mother, and the shelter workers who were instructed not to hug her. I read about the parents who begged officers for a few minutes to say goodbye to their children, who were crying and vomiting from fear, and who were told no. And while I cannot begin to comprehend the pain of the families torn apart by officials in a hostile and alien land, I can feel faint echoes of it in my gut.
You don’t have to be a parent to experience this reaction. The separation of parents and young children represents a harm so elemental that empathy is involuntary, as when you watch someone stub their toe and cannot help but wince. Politics doesn’t come into it. No one, from the border guards ripping babies from their mothers’ arms to the Trump administration’s senior policymakers, can be under any illusion as to the suffering they are inflicting.
Under the “zero tolerance” policy anyone who enters the US at an unofficial crossing will be jailed and criminally prosecuted, even if they are seeking asylum having fled violence or persecution, and even if they have children. Children cannot be held in criminal detention, so they are removed from their parents.
The most enthusiastic proponents of this policy, such as the attorney general Jeff Sessions, senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller and White House chief of staff John Kelly, view it as a deterrent. The distress brought upon families fleeing poverty and violence becomes useful PR. The cruel separation of families at the border is not an unfortunate side-effect, it’s the whole point.
Some Republicans have remained silent, and others have expressed their distaste for family separations but are nevertheless willing to use the policy to pressure Democrats into voting for a hard-line immigration bill. History will condemn them for their complicity and cowardice, but that is little consolation for the children in detention centres, who do not know if they will ever see their parents again.
The president meanwhile keeps repeating the lie that Democrats are responsible for his administration’s heartless policy. He insists he “hates” to see parents and children separated, and yet if he wanted to, he could end the practice today, by instructing Homeland Security to stop sending border-crossers with children to jail. Instead, he prefers to use traumatised children as a political tool to wring immigration concessions from Democrats – and if he can simultaneously convince a few fools that he is blameless, then so much the better.
Previous US administrations have either avoided detaining families who cross the border or have placed parents and children in administrative detention together while their asylum claim is considered. Trump’s zero tolerance policy is a radical departure, and the first time an American government has engaged in criminally prosecuting everyone who enters the US irregularly.
When Sessions announced this policy in April he knew it would result in families being split up, and in the six weeks that followed, around 2,000 children were separated from their parents – with no policy for how to reunite them.
While parents’ immigration cases are being handled by the department for homeland security, their children are being treated as though they had entered the US unaccompanied and are placed in the care of the department of health and human services. There are no procedures in place to ensure that parents, children, lawyers and government officials can easily locate family members held in different detention facilities, run by different government departments. A former director of immigration and customs enforcement told the New York Times that there is a “very high risk” that some families will be permanently separated.
Some parents have gone months without knowing where their children are, others have been deported without them. A hotline was set up to help detained parents locate their children, but the number cannot be dialled from most detention centre phones. Charity workers are struggling to help children who are too traumatised to speak, or too young to even know their parents’ full names. Through malice and incompetence, the president and his far-right ideologues are creating a humanitarian crisis of devastating proportions.
When I see the images of small, scared children flanked by armed guards I wonder how Trump officials live with themselves. How great a threat must a woman pose to warrant taking her baby from her, to justify inflicting such horrific pain? The answer makes clear that this reprehensible policy was never about rational border policing or so-called economic nationalism. It is the politics of hatred and it exposes the violence and racism at the heart of Trumpism.
This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis