I found myself locked in a fruitless, frustrating online debate with a Trump supporter recently. While most of the world was looking on in horror at the news that young children had been forcibly separated from their parents, after the latter attempted to enter the United States as asylum seekers or migrants and were detained in government facilities, she kept defending his policies as justified and warranted.
“Why are they trying to enter the country illegally if they don’t want to be separated from their kids?” she asked me, as if such dire consequences were perfectly normal. How do you argue with someone who’s discussing the legality of an act while ignoring the immorality of ripping children as young as eight months old from their parents and sending them off to baby jails? I ultimately walked away from the conversation. There is no common ground with people who think there is any justifiable reason for putting kids in cages, especially given the audio recordings of kids sobbing and imploring guards to let them be with their parents. Who rationalizes something like this?
“These aren’t our kids,” says the Fox News pundit, as if the mere acknowledgment that they aren’t American is enough to make such treatment okay. More than 2,500 children were ripped away from their parents with no real plan to reunite them or keep tabs on their whereabouts, and Trump supporters are talking “borders” and “M-13 gangs” as if crying toddlers and gangly pre-teens are hardened Mexican inner-city warlords.
“You can come up with stories to explain why you have nothing in common with the people who suffer, even why they are not people,” says the astute and brilliant essayist Rebecca Solnit in “Not Caring is a Political Art Form”. In it she explains how government policy so often paints the victims as victimizers so it’s easier not to care — and therefore not to be obliged to act when forced to care. Corey Lewandowski reacting on TV to the news that a young girl with Down syndrome was separated from her mom at the border with a dismissive “womp, womp” is what not caring looks like.
The developments have been head-spinning. Every day brings new horrific revelations. Children locked up in isolation, parents deported while their children are left alone in government facilities, minors appearing in court not understanding the language. Have we really reached the surrealistic point of discussing “tender age facilities” or “unaccompanied minors” as if we’re talking about kids travelling on an Air Canada flight to see their grandparents in Calgary, instead of kids taken away for having parents who dare to dream of a better life away from violence or poverty?
Illegal entry is not a criminal offence
Illegal entry is not a crime, by the way. It is nothing more than a misdemeanour according to U.S. law, yet asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants are being referred to by Trump as “animals” attempting to “infest” and “invade” pure American soil. It all started on May 7, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (commonly known as ICE) announced a “zero-tolerance” policy for anyone crossing into the U.S. illegally.
But shouldn’t a “zero-tolerance” policy be required in the middle of a migration crisis, some might ask. Well… there isn’t a crisis according to this Globe and Mail article, which includes information on migration levels obtained from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
“The 2018 numbers are ... a small fraction, less than a third, of the rate experienced in the 2000s under George W. Bush, or in the 1990s under Bill Clinton, or in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. Since 2008, illegal crossings have fallen to lows not seen since the early 1970s.” You wouldn’t know it by listening to Trump talk, though.
It was only on June 20, amid rising public pressure within and outside of the United States, that Trump finally decided to sign an executive order directing his administration to end family separations, like a crazed arsonist reluctantly putting out a fire he had started.
There is little to rejoice about here. He only grudgingly and very slowly walked back his policies after facing intense criticism from all sides. His decision was not motivated by empathy, only by the begrudging knowledge that he could no longer get away with it, thanks to the stellar work of journalists exposing the shameful consequences of his inhumanity. His new order does very little to reunite the families who have been separated, and while his administration has promised to no longer separate families in the future, most Americans don’t realize (or care) that his policy aims to detain these people together but also detain them indefinitely.
But this conversation goes way beyond arguing the technicalities of who and how one is detained. It goes straight to the matter of borders and humanity and survival as a species. It goes to the heart of humanity and how we see one another. It’s about whether we move forward together or increasingly become more insular and protectionist, shielding ourselves from the damage our own foreign policies have often caused. To circle the wagons and talk about “our borders” is simplistic and naïve. It ignores reality, history, and the truth banging on our door.
The legacy of Trump's 'zero-tolerance' policy
Does it not occur to Americans that no one leaves their country and risks jail, family separation and deportation if their reality isn’t a hundred times more horrific? In Honduras, violence is the second-leading cause of death after heart disease. Yet Trump’s administration, in another blow to human decency and kindness, made sure that escaping gang violence and fleeing domestic abuse are no longer valid reasons to seek asylum.
Women and children will die because of these decisions. Guatemala and El Salvador are experiencing major political crises that have made the countries dangerous to many. For those people, the only long-term solution that they see is leaving their homes and starting over somewhere else. While the U.S. government tries to scare them off, people with legitimate fears who are in no way a threat won’t be deterred by these policies, and human traffickers will be the only ones who will benefit.
Lost in the conversation about whether Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy is solely aimed at illegal immigrants is a larger conversation that must be had — one that requires that the United States look in the mirror and acknowledge that the role of colonizer and exploiter it has played on foreign lands has caused the conditions leading to forced migration.
Regardless of social, political, and military forces that weave and lead their way back to the country now turning people away, how can anyone in good conscience be debating or attempting to justify the legality of separating kids from their parents without acknowledging the toxic stress and immense long-term psychological trauma it represents? It’s tantamount to child abuse, and I can’t find it in me to even debate someone attempting to justify these policies.
Trump’s policies and rhetoric have allowed unfettered racism to reign. While many Americans are becoming insular and closing themselves off to the world, unabashed white racists in the country’s midst are calling 911 on eight-year-old Black girls selling water or referring to hard-working Mexicans as “rapists” because their president said so. The populist water in the well they’re drinking from has become putrid and poisoned. It is a society that is increasingly turning in on itself as it becomes more irrelevant on the international scene.
The United States is not alone in closing itself off to others. In Italy, the new populist government recently turned away a ship with 600 migrants from Africa. In Hungary, a law was just passed making it a crime to help migrants and stating that an “alien population” cannot be settled in Hungary.
Humanity will have to prevail
I recently heard Canada’s Governor General and former astronaut Julie Payette speak at a Montreal conference. “This planet is our common spaceship. We all share it. Borders are something we humans have created,” she said to resounding applause. How easily we forget our commonality in some misguided quest to protect human-made borders and artificial lines drawn in the sand. As if everything we are and are often defined by — our nationality, our citizenship, our religion, our culture and our language — aren't just accidents of birth. As if where those migrants are now — on the other side of the wall or border or fence or jail — isn’t where we might have been if not for dumb luck and sheer happenstance. How ungrateful and ignorant we are not to acknowledge this.
While we here in Canada are not without our own failings, and a national conversation certainly needs to be had on how our government has and continues to treat Indigenous communities and children, we are still treating asylum seekers and migrants far better than our neighbours to the south. Demands to the federal government to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States of America should not go unheeded.
Under the agreement, asylum seekers who arrive legally at Canadian land border crossings are often turned back to U.S. authorities without having their refugee claims heard. But as long as the United States treats refugees, asylum seekers and migrants as a national threat, indefinitely detaining them as a means of border control, it is not a safe country, and we as Canadians should be imploring our government to suspend such an agreement.
This isn't a temporary problem that will go away when Trump goes away. A record-breaking 65.6 million people are currently forcibly displaced from their homes. More than a third of them — 22.5 million people — are refugees, over half of which are under the age of 18. As climate change becomes more of an issue worldwide, it will create more and more refugees. This problem, which will affect us all, will only become bigger. How do we empathize with refugees and understand their needs and fears, and how do we assist them to resettle and start new lives? These are the questions we should be asking, instead of creating laws to keep them out. Our survival as a species depends on leading with empathy, on opening our borders, on sharing our common humanity.
It will not be found in doubling down on hate and greed and in “othering” those who had the misfortune to be born on land that can no longer sustain them. As history has shown us, time and time again with slavery and segregation and the Holocaust, legality is not a guide for morality. On my way to the Metro, I watch a mom and her daughter walk in front of me. The young girl is seven or eight. She has a long, thick, black braid that bobs as she walks. They’re playing a game. Each time they come across a pole or a tree they let go of their clasped hands and separately walk on either side. After walking past they grab each other’s hands again and giggle. They repeat the movement again and again. Always, the young girl reaches out for her mom’s hand first.
I think of the children in detention camps reaching out for their parents and catching only air. I catch my breath and my heart hurts. Are we not capable of being more?