Splitting Migrant Families, How Could This Happen?

David Shorr

Splitting Migrant Families, How Could This Happen?
By David Shorr

Ever since President Trump started splitting parents and children at our southern border, I’ve been thinking about the last time I was called for jury duty. Jurors were being picked for a case about the termination of parental rights, and they’d be judging whether someone had been such an irresponsible parent that their child should be removed from their care. It’s an extremely serious step that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Fast forward to the Trump administration’s shocking carelessness in seizing children from their migrant parents. Rather than fair treatment and respect for basic rights, Trump is responsible for a level of abuses I never thought I’d live to see in these United States. Searching my memory of the last five decades, I can’t think of a worse violation of rights by the US government on American soil.

Faced with public outcry and a federal court order, the government has made progress in reuniting families. But with over 700 children still acknowledged in custody—and a lot of sketchy categorization of the kids and coercion of parents—we need to keep an eye on this. In fact I would argue that this whole debacle should prompt some soul-searching regardless of the reunifications. We have to ask ourselves how this could happen.

Let us not forget that before the public backlash, the Trump administration wasn’t so bashful about splitting up families. Trump and Attorney General Sessions justified their policy as a badly needed step to finally get tough on border enforcement. Just to be clear, their idea of getting tough entailed on-the-spot seizure of children as summary justice for a misdemeanor charge of crossing the border without a visa.

Americans have traditionally viewed ourselves as representing the highest standards of the rule of law and the protection of human rights. We’ve held ourselves up to others as an example of the fair and impartial administration of justice. As with most things in our democracy, the reality of our justice system is a work in progress—with serious problems, for instance, in the treatment of Americans of color. But Donald Trump’s family separation policy and the excuses made by its defenders raise much more basic questions.

For one thing, if a justice system is meant to be a model, it can’t offer due process only to its own citizens and rougher treatment to outsiders who’ve reached our shores. This is starkly at odds with the idea of all men and women being created equal. It also shirks the government’s own responsibility for fairness. Attorney General Sessions for instance has tried justifying the family separations by blaming the parents for bringing their children on such a dangerous journey. This only highlights his ignorance about the dangerous conditions that led those parents to flee and the arrogant abuse of his power in taking away their kids.

And when President Trump mocked and complained about the role of judges in this process, he shows a dangerous scorn for legal due process generally and particularly the rights of refugees seeking safe haven from persecution. I saw first-hand what’s at stake in these issues earlier in my own career when I worked for groups like Refugees International and Human Rights First. The basic principles of refugee protection are simple and based on familiar history. With so few Jews being offered safety from Hitler’s Holocaust by other nations (including our own), the international community codified the right of persecuted people to seek and receive asylum. In other words, the process that Trump whined about is actually America’s obligation to seriously weigh the claims of anyone seeking asylum.

Like so many others, my reaction to seeing Trump break up all these families was that this isn’t who we are as a country.  But perhaps that’s too simple and reassuring. This failure is too serious to be viewed an out-of-character misstep. Sadly we now bear the burden of proof to demonstrate who America is. It starts with returning every child we can to their parents—with no dodging responsibility for cases of parents already deported or those bullied into signing away their right to seek asylum.

~ David Shorr is 2nd District alderperson on the Stevens Point, Wisconsin Common Council. Reprinted from the Stevens Point News with permission of the author.

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