Sleepless in the States: World Refugee Day and the Crisis at the Border

I couldn’t sleep last night. As I lay in my bed hearing the gentle breathing and shuffling sheets of my 5 year old and 8 year old, asleep in the room next door, I couldn’t stop thinking about children on the border who are separated from their parents in our new “zero tolerance” child/parent separation policy. 

I am always, by nature, wary of jumping on a bandwagon. I am wary of being swept away in outrage about the trending issue of the moment. Biblically, the pursuit of justice is essential, but I have slowly learned pursuing justice is often quiet and unseen; it resists virtue-signaling; it’s earthy and rooted and endures over the long haul. Systems form and change slowly and institutionally. Wisdom requires understanding, and that generally comes with study, slowness, commitment, and suffering. I am wary of the spectacle of political posturing and, though I use them, I’m skeptical about the ability of hashtags to do much good.

Biblically, the pursuit of justice is essential, but I have slowly learned pursuing justice is often quiet and unseen; it resists virtue-signaling; it’s earthy and rooted and endures over the long haul. Click To Tweet

But this was urgent. This required swift and decisive action. I could not shake the sense of urgency because each day found more and more families destroyed and children harmed. Each night, I envision the cries of toddlers who newly joined the ranks of the detained. 

I know that this isn’t the first time families have ever been separated at the border, but I also know that this is the first time  (in recent memory) that this has happened on this scale. And it must stop. 

So, even if I am shouting into the wind or preaching to the choir, here are the reasons that I can’t sleep at night:

1. This new policy is shockingly cruel and inhumane. 

NPR Reports that,

In April, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered prosecutors along the border to ‘adopt immediately a zero-tolerance policy’ for illegal border crossings. That included prosecuting parents traveling with their children as well as people who subsequently attempted to request asylum.

The current way in which immigration laws are being enforced marks an inhumane departure from our former practice. Children – including infants and toddlers – are being separated from their parents. In a special form of torture, there is an additional policy in place that children who are detained cannot be touched by overseers in any way – when the three year old who isn’t sure where her mom is or if she will see her again is sobbing uncontrollably on the floor, no adult in the room can respond with basic human decency and comfort a lonely, crying child. Social workers and counselors I have consulted tell me that we cannot overestimate the amount of long-term trauma this is doing to children. Pediatricians have condemned the policy. Religious leaders en masse (both on the Right and on the Left) have condemned this policy. This law is abusive. It traumatizes children. There is no way to justify that.

2. This is statism at its worst. 

I hear people say: But, but, but, the State is simply enforcing the laws of the land. We have to prosecute illegal border crossings, and we don’t want kids to have to go to jail with their parents, so families must be separated. To be clear: The solution to this problem is not to send kids to jail with their families or to indefinitely detain families.

But border crossing is a non-violent crime, and it is a misdemeanor. There is evidence that, in the tangled web of impersonal government bureaucracy, children are being separated from their parents for months. Parents are being deported without knowing where their children are.

We do not indefinitely separate children from their parents for misdemeanors in this country.

Are there violent criminals – gang members, human traffickers, smugglers – who use children to get into the United States? According to at least one border control agent, there are. Should that mean that therefore all those seeking asylum or crossing into America should lose their children indefinitely? Absolutely not.

Just as our legal system seeks to err on the side of protecting the innocent from false imprisonment (even if that means, at times, that criminals go free), our border policies need to err or the side of protecting children and families.

Conservative columnist David Brooks reminds us that,

The Trump administration immigration officials have become exactly the kind of monsters that conservatism has always warned against. For centuries, conservatives have repeated a specific critique against state power. Statism, conservatives have argued, has a tendency to become brutalist and inhumane because a bureaucracy can’t see or account for the complexity of reality. …This is exactly what the Trump immigration policies are doing. Families are ripped apart and children are left weeping by the fences constructed by government officials blindly following a regulation.

This is a conservative argument. Do you trust the government enough to allow the precedent of the State destroying families for a misdemeanor offense?

3. This policy is not pro-family and it isn’t pro-life. 

The Internet meme that proclaims, “if you don’t agree with me on x policy, then you are not pro-life,” is frankly tired and often unfounded. But, in this narrow case, it’s really pretty true. Mostly because both abortion and the forcible breakup of families harm children. And, in both cases, this irreparable harm to children is done in the name of the law, in the name of rights. After all, a nation, many Republicans remind us, has the right to secure its borders, just as a woman, many Democrats remind us, has a right to determine whether her unborn baby will live or die. Both are using rights language to cause the suffering of the weakest and most vulnerable.

“Yes, yes,” I hear conservatives saying, “but we aren’t killing children at the border.” True. But tell that to a four-year-old girl curled silently in the fetal position, scared and alone, clutching the soles of the shoes her mother tied for her, not knowing if she will see her again.

You simply cannot be pro-family and for this policy. It puts the State and its laws above the importance of family. At a minimum, to be pro-family is to keep children with their parents whenever possible, especially when their parents are loving, non-abusive, and non-violent. To elevate border laws over real, flesh and blood families is to nullify the sacredness of the family unit and the parent-child bond, which is madness. And madness always has consequences.

4. This is not effective as a deterrent.

Even if it were, it wouldn’t matter. If chopping off the hands of thieves’ children deterred theft, it still would be unjust to do so. We don’t weaponize children to create more effective law enforcement. Nevertheless, there’s no evidence that this is even effective as a deterrent. There are no PSA’s letting Latin Americans know that this is happening at our border crossing. The United States government isn’t working to get the word out through ordinary means. We suddenly began a new policy and are evidently hoping that impoverished non-citizens somehow hear about it, and that hearing about it will deter them from illegal immigration.  Which leads us to…

5. This policy hardens our hearts and lessens our humanity. 

I don’t want to be able to easily fall asleep after hearing about the American government ripping masses of children from their parents’ loving arms.

The striking thing to me about every interview I hear on this issue is that everyone blames someone else. Republicans blame democrats and vice-versa. And the resounding refrain from all involved is that they are “just doing their job.” Culpability is removed in the name of professional obligation, and a blind eye is turned toward the damage this is causing. But justifying harm to children doesn’t just destroy children, it destroys the consciences of those who are “just doing their job.” In order to continue with this policy we are – as a community – further hardening our hearts to the vulnerable and the weak, and doing so is dangerous. We may gain a little border security but we are losing our soul.

In continuing with the policy of family separation we are further hardening our hearts to the vulnerable and the weak, and doing so is dangerous. We may gain a little border security but we are losing our soul. Click To Tweet

Furthermore, this policy kicks the weak when they are down. The crime of illegal border crossing is, almost always, born out of desperation— whether from death threats, violence, or extreme poverty. People flee from their homes out of fear, out of hope that they might simply find a safe place for their children. And then they make it to the border and watch any parent’s worse nightmare unfold: “Welcome to the USA, say goodbye to your 8 year old. If you navigate our terrifying federal bureaucracy perfectly, maybe you’ll see her again someday.”

Truly, God help us if we start sleeping well at night.

A Practical Way to Respond

World Relief has made it incredibly easy to call your congressman. I did this morning and they were “overwhelmed by calls.” I hope so. Advocate.

By all accounts the attorney general can end this practice with a few phone calls and about 20 minutes. So let’s ask that he do so. And that Congress demands that he do so.

Secondly, World Relief set up a fund to help those families who are separated at the border. This will help reunite families and help with immigration legal fees. Please give!

Pray. Pray for mercy. Pray for these children. Pray for government officials.

If you can’t sleep, pray. If you can, pray anyway.

Post Script: As this piece was readied for publication, the news broke that the president signed an executive order to end the child/parent separation policy–not by ending the zero tolerance policy, but by detaining children and parents together. 

I will be relieved if this means that we are no longer separating families, though we need to know how families already divided will be (immediately!) reunited. But it is also likely, according to legal experts and refugee advocates, that the courts will quickly determine that existing laws do not allow the president to detain children indefinitely, as the executive order instructs. So we must ensure that this policy does not return if a judge strikes down indefinite child detainment. 

Also, while I’m glad families are together, indefinite family detainment is wrong.  Kids shouldn’t be in jail, nor should parents who have fled violence and want a better future for their children.

It is essential that we continue to give to organizations who are working to reunite these families. Join me in supporting the work of World Relief.

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