In early May Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that U.S. law enforcement would begin a new tactic of separating parents from their children if they are caught attempting to cross the Southwest U.S. border illegally. Opponents of the policy have called for it to end because of the trauma that this inflicts on the children, which can have long-term health consequences. Supporters don’t seem to refute these claims but generally shift blame to the parents who are putting their children in this position by attempting to cross the border illegally. The United Nations has deemed the practice a violation of the children’s’ human rights and called for it to be halted immediately.
The largest and most dire flaw in the policy is obviously that it causes serious immediate, ongoing, and long-term harm to blameless children. Understanding why the ideas behind the policy are also flawed can help to illustrate why simply blaming the parents is in no way sufficient to justify the actions taken against these children. In terms of simple logic and human morals the rationale for separating children from their parents under these circumstances falls apart under even a little examination. Morally any action that involves children must be guided by the principle of eliminating or at least reducing any potential harm to the children. Logically if there are detention centers that can house children it is possible to have a detention center that can house a family together. This would accomplish the goal of detaining people who are attempting to cross the border illegally, without inflicting nearly as much harm on the kids.
This of course assumes that it’s necessary to detain everyone who is caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally. It’s not. Crossing the U.S. border illegally once is a federal misdemeanor. No other country has policy like this and up until recently in the U.S. the practice had been to turn people around or release them while they wait for a hearing in immigration court. Detaining people for this is a little like sending a person to jail and impounding their car after one speeding ticket. Except if the car was a living breathing human child capable of experiencing trauma. It seems that the separations are not being done as a matter of legal necessity but rather as a sort of legal PR campaign to scare off potential illegal immigrants.
Forcibly separating kids from their parents is an act of violence. When a group uses violence or the threat of violence to instill fear and influence the actions of a certain population, that’s known as terrorism. When a government does it that can be categorized as state terrorism. And the U.S. government knows how well this form of terrorism works because this is not the first time it’s been used in the U.S. Separating parents from their children, or threatening to, was used as means to control and torture slaves and Native Americans for hundreds of years in the U.S. Having the government take part in this practice again is a step backwards towards the most horrific parts of America’s past, and embracing the worst in what the United States is.
Of course the U.S. needs a southern border that is actually functional as a border. But if lawmakers and law enforcers are not able to accomplish that without hurting children then they need to try much harder, or they need to be replaced with people who will. The U.S. also needs lawmakers who understand the historical and current role that American actions and policies have in making certain parts of central and South American very difficult to live in for a lot of people.
Citizens of the Marshal Islands may live and work in the U.S. without a visa, and can even serve in the U.S. military. This policy exists because the U.S. and the Marshal Islands have a unique relationship that accounts for the fact that during the 1940s and 50s the U.S. military used Bikini Atoll and several other areas of the Marshal Islands as nuclear test sites. The nuclear detonations killed many Marshallese and rendered several parts of the now independent nation permanently unlivable.
This same arrangement would obviously not work between the U.S. and most other countries, and the U.S. has so far not nuked any other any part of South or Central America. But it has damaged economies and governments and negatively impacted livability in a number of its southern neighbors. The U.S. has backed multiple attempts to overthrow democratically elected leaders in Nicaragua, for over 100 years. Progress towards democracy, law and order, and economic growth in Honduras has been undermined by U.S. powers again and again, often for purely commercial gain. The U.S. government installed a dictator in Panama and then subsequently invaded to overthrow him. And of course the U.S. “War on Drugs” combined with Americans’ insatiable demand for illegal drugs has, for decades, fueled and empowered the drug cartels that have people running for their lives out of parts of Mexico and other countries. This is not to say that the U.S is entirely to blame for everything wrong in any other country. Government corruption, lack of law and order, and other internal political and economic factors in various countries are also big factors in people feeling like they need to leave their homes and come to the U.S., but there is plenty of blame to go around and the U.S. bears some of it.
The same way that the U.S. government has taken some responsibility for the long-term effects of nuclear testing in the Marshal Islands, it can take responsibility for its role in the influx of immigrants from other countries. That means both working with foreign governments to help ensure that people have safety and opportunities no matter where they live. And it means creating functional immigration policies that allow entry for people who don’t have access to safety or opportunity where they are, and who want to live and work and peacefully make a good life in the U.S. If that can be accomplished then there will be fewer parents who are facing a choice between bringing their child to the U.S. illegally with the threat of getting separated at the border, or staying put and having their child grow up under extreme poverty and/or the threat of getting murdered by a cartel.
Blaming the parents who are faced with that choice is not nearly an adequate justification for hurting kids, and it never will be. Nothing will be.