Proponents of a proposal under consideration by the Trump administration to separate parents from children whose families are caught illegally crossing the border can cite precedent in American history. In the antebellum South, black slaves who were rented among masters could be auctioned off at the start of the year when their owners’ contracts expired. In effect, they could be wrenched from their families and sold down the river to far-away plantations in the Deep South. Of all the travails of slavery, the prospect of parents being separated from their children and never again seeing their kin was among the worst.
From the masters’ viewpoint, they were simply collateral, sold to satisfy mortgage payments, bank loans or gambling debts. It was like selling livestock. The anguish of the slaves was irrelevant, since they were considered a subspecies, incapable of the refined sensibilities of their white owners who were impervious to the tears of parents torn from their children. Under this system, upwards of 10 percent of American slaves — probably a low figure — faced January 1 with dread. After abolition, newspapers throughout the South were filled with the ads of former slaves desperate to reunite with their families who’d been sold to far-off plantations. Too often, the search was in vain.
The thread that links the plight of the erstwhile slaves and the victims of this current policy, which has the blessings of the White House, is the assumption that they are somehow alien to our culture, a lesser order, at once threatening and docile, who can be dealt with in whatever manner we see fit to advance or protect our own interests. In both cases, the policy was, and is, state sanctioned and perfectly legal.
More than 150 families have already been torn apart in a dress-rehearsal by immigration authorities that would be prologue to a full-blown program once the Trump administration gives it the green light. One of these families, according to news accounts, is that of Juan Fuentes who came here with his 1-year-old son, Mateo, claiming asylum at the border from gang violence in El Salvador. The infant was taken from him and transported to a detention center more than 1,000 miles away. His wife, Olivia Acevedo, who remained in Mexico with their 4-year-old, Andree, was frantic when the couple could not locate their infant for almost a week. ICE claims that the infant was seized from his father “out of concern for the child’s safety.’’ Mateo’s mother, Olivia Acevedo, offers a more succinct response. “It’s inhuman to take a baby from its parents.” When she was finally allowed to talk to her child, he was crying. “It’s a form of torture,” she said.
As a society, we have now progressed from torturing terrorists to torturing children. Juan Fuentes regrets ever having tried to enter the US with his son. Had he known the boy would be taken from him, he now says he never would have made the journey. Which is the point of this proposed policy: If you cross the border with your family, we’ll take your children from you. This nostrum springs from a political party that affects to celebrate family values. The question is whose family is being valued and whose children are considered valuable. Perhaps it is what Roy Moore meant in pining for a time when there was greater family unity, albeit cemented by the bonds of slavery.
The Christmas season is upon us and one has to wonder how people who call themselves Christians can align with a government, a party, a president, that advocate tearing children from their parents to enforce border security. We have now progressed from building a wall to separating families. Even under a foreign monarch, the Holy Family, alien immigrants in flight from oppression, remained intact. How would they have fared under Donald Trump?
In this past week’s portion of the Torah, Vayigash, Jacob and his family, faced with hunger, flee the famine in Canaan to sojourn in Egypt where they and their offspring, although welcomed by the Pharaoh of Joseph’s time, will subsequently become enslaved. The experience of servitude was seared into Israel’s consciousness with the admonition of Exodus: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This injunction is made repeatedly to remind the Israelites “not to oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger.” For those who embrace the Judeo-Christian tradition, these words are as obligatory today as they were when first inscribed.
How, then, have we reached a pass where a vindictive justice supplants mercy, where Christian charity is selective and where human compassion curdles? How far have we come from the humanity of the 1965 Immigration Act, which sought to reunify families, to the hostility of the Trump Doctrine which seeks to rend them? People of good will, of whatever faith, can no longer sit idly by in the face of such deliberate cruelty fostered by a pitiless government. To remain silent while families are rent asunder and others are rounded up is to be complicit. What good will secure borders do when the values they are supposed to protect are corroded from within. It is time for people of good conscience to speak out against a policy of malevolent persecution inflicted on the latest strangers to our ever-stranger land.
Jack Schwartz was formerly the book editor of Newsday.