I believe this is my earliest memory. Kolkata, 1968, ’69 or maybe 1970, my mother’s family home in Lake Gardens. This was the house Ma grew up in, when both her parents are still alive. It is dusk. I am outside, sitting on the little stoop that comes before the door, then the foyer, then the winding staircase to the main floor, then the rectangular great room. From the stoop I mostly see the 6-foot wall that surrounds the driveway and the house. The wall has two openings to the street, one to drive in and one to drive out, like windows in the wall letting me see the street. A man, walking fast, holding a small child, who is crying and reaching over the man’s shoulder for the woman who follows. The woman, chasing the man, also crying, screaming “give him back to me.” The man is yelling too, but he is smug, not desperate, confident that he has beaten her. They leave my sight within seconds, but I can still hear them crying. Clearly, he is taking the baby away from her. Clearly, this is a kidnapping.
Memory is tricky, never trickier than those of early childhood. But this image has imprinted itself into my brain as a story of men using children to punish women. I could have made it up, but I’ve recalled it since I was a child – it isn’t a “found” memory, but one that I can’t remember not having. There was no TV, and adults did not talk about anything deemed “boro ther” in front of kids, so it isn’t a story I heard and integrated into my psyche. I saw it. As I got older, I assigned it the meaning that most easily comes to me based on what I know about the world. A man punishes, controls, overcomes a woman by taking her child.
I think of these images daily now, as news of family separation grows. That woman and her child were a daily presence seven years ago, too, as I worked to tell the story of what happens to kids whose parents are deported. The first such story I ever heard, I was in journalism school after almost two decades in organizing. I was looking for a long-form story to cover for my magazine class. My friend Tanya, a social worker who mostly spent her days helping incarcerated moms stay connected to their kids, told me about three girls, one teen, one pre-teen and one around 7 or 8, who had been waiting years in foster care to be reunited with their mother. She was a Dominican immigrant who had just finished a prison sentence for a drug conviction. I went to an after school program on a cold February day to meet three shell shocked, totally shut down children. Their mom was out of prison, but they were still in foster care. When Mom got out of prison, she was deported. Immigrants who are not yet citizens can be deported if convicted of a “felony.” But a minor drug conviction is recast as a felony in immigration terms. This is why the federal government’s claim (both Obama’s and Trump’s) that they only deport the worst criminals among undocumented immigrants works so well – since 1996, all such migrants are considered felons upon their second entry. So these Presidents can say, we are only deporting terrible felons because Congress, with Bill Clinton’s help, made them into felons in the first place.
For years, the Race Forward (then we were the Applied Research Center) team and I worked to understand how many kids were in foster care, either taken there or stuck there, just because their parents had been deported. In 2011, we estimated that at least 5000 children were sitting in foster care in danger of never seeing their parents again. With no change, loving parents would have their parental rights terminated, and their children would be put up for adoption. There was a lot of ignorance and racism on display in the decisions of ICE agents, family court judges and others who made it harder or even impossible for deportees to regain custody of their kids, but this was a failure of systems. President Obama made a Parental Interests Directive requiring ICE to let parents have access to phones, social workers and family courts so they could get their kids back. The key to ending that problem was ending mass deportation. That didn’t happen, but in the last two years of the Obama Administration, deportations went down by about half.
This right here is an entirely different matter. There is no law requiring that kids and parents be separated at the border. The Administration’s claim that this only happens when the child seems to be with traffickers is a straight-up lie. Migrants weren’t told of the new policy, so it is in no way a “deterrent.” I’ll write more about the facts and lies in a subsequent post, but for now, it matters that we recognize the impact of this moment – racial terror designed to make people suffer and put others on notice that we could come for you, too, and you won’t be able to do crap about it.
My social media and news feeds are full of crying children and desperate parents. But in addition to their suffering, we need to keep a focus on who is at fault here. Of all the images I’ve seen, none better describes the moment than this political cartoon by Rob Rogers, a 25-year staffer who was fired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after publishing this.
Donald Trump. Stephen Miller. John Kelly. Jeff Sessions. A bunch of men kidnapping the children of women and “weaker” men. Until they go, we will have more of these outrages. Getting them to stop this separation policy is critical, but it will not be enough. They’ve got the next outrage already planned. Resisting will have increasing consequences, but we must fight anyway -- for the kids, for their parents, and for the sake of our own souls.