Tracy Hahn-Burkett: On the U.S.-Mexico border, a policy of anguish

  • A Central American child traveling with a caravan of migrants sleeps at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on April 29. AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 5/30/2018 12:14:58 AM

Two weeks ago, my family celebrated my daughter’s bat mitzvah. My daughter, a child separated from her parents at birth, celebrated this Jewish rite of passage in grand style. With a long history among the Jewish people, the bat mitzvah (or bar mitzvah for boys) is when a girl commits herself to the rights and obligations of a Jewish adult. It’s a time of ritual and prayer with family, friends and, frequently, large doses of nostalgia.

To say parents feel time’s passage as they watch their 13-year-old read from the Torah for the first time is an understatement. As I sat in the front row of our synagogue, I couldn’t erase my smile as my daughter led the 2½ -our service. Dressed in lavender lace, her long dark hair reaching down her back, this beautiful young woman chanted in Hebrew, offered her interpretation of her assigned portion of the text and in general kept me wondering where the days, months and years had gone. I remembered the sleepless nights, the first smile. The hundreds of crayon pictures, the dawn of reading, the tween who was the only one of all her friends who didn’t have an iPhone – where had that girl gone? Even as I write this, the tears well in my eyes for all those moments past and the teen moments yet to come.

How many more tears would I cry if someone had stolen all those moments from me?

This is the official policy of the United States right now: to steal moments like these from parents who cross the United States-Mexico border without the proper paperwork. Our government is forcibly removing children as young as infants from their parents – sometimes literally tearing them from their parents’ arms – then dealing with the children by sending them to foster care or warehousing them in former military barracks, or, in the word of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, “whatever.” Parents are often given little if any information about the whereabouts of their children.

Why is this barbarous practice now official United States policy? The Trump administration has stated that it is taking children away from their parents as a deterrent to other parents who might think about trying to come here. In other words, they’re violating rights and breaking the bond between parents and children in an attempt to influence the behavior of others.

Some say the people affected by this policy deserve it because they are breaking the law. Let’s take a look at that statement and the people who are its target.

The men, women and children being treated by our government as so many bothersome animals to be rounded up, sorted and dispensed with are people looking to come to America for a better life. In many cases, they are asylum-seekers. The latter are people fleeing their countries of origin because they have a well-founded fear of persecution, a standard governed by U.S. and international law that requires countries to allow such claimants to make their cases. Many of them have been mistreated in their home countries and look to that beacon of freedom, the United States, as their last resort to escape injustice, sometimes even death.

As for those who cross the border “merely” seeking a better life? Who among us is not descended from people in similar situations? Only those whose ancestors were either Native American or brought here against their will. Seeking a better life is what America is all about. This administration may have scrubbed the words “nation of immigrants” from the mission statement of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Agency – the agency responsible for overseeing both green cards and citizenship – but it cannot scrub away the truth, no matter how hard it tries. This is who we are. We are not supposed to be the oppressor; we are supposed to stand up for the oppressed.

We see what is happening. We have seen it before – the whole world has. When people are suffering economically, complex solutions are needed. But it’s much easier to create a scapegoat. Pick a group of people and blame them for the larger population’s woes. “The Jew.” “The Negro.” “The Immigrant.” After all, these groups aren’t like “us,” right? They’re not really people, right? They’re more like animals, aren’t they? So it’s okay to treat them as less. They’re not equal. They don’t warrant basic, human respect. They’re like vermin, getting into your life, your town, ruining everything. You can hurt them. You can even kill them. You have to – you must protect your way of life.

That’s how it goes in history, over and over and over again. Are we going to let history repeat itself here and now?

Immigrant children who crossed the United States’ southern border are experiencing life’s moments right now. Some of them may be taking their first steps. Some may be traumatized from long travel, crying for their parents, their cries going unanswered. But instead of experiencing those moments with them, their parents are living moment after moment of loss, fear and despair because their children have been stolen and disappeared, and they haven’t been told where their children are or when they might be returned.

What if you were one of these parents? What if this happened to you and your child?

My daughter, whose bat mitzvah was two weeks ago, is adopted. There is a woman I think about often, though I have never met her. She did not get to raise her child. I cannot share the story of our triad with you because it is not my story to tell, but I can tell you that sometimes my heart breaks for this woman because I know the magnificence of what she lost.

Separating parent and child is sometimes necessary due to circumstance, and then it is almost unspeakably sad. To separate parent and child when it is not necessary is inhumane and cruel. And we cannot allow our country to continue to perpetrate these unjustifiable acts.

 (Tracy Hahn-Burkett of Bow is a writer and former civil rights and civil liberties public policy advocate.)

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