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We are better than this

Family separation is no more a Republican policy than it is a Democratic policy. In fact, it is neither. It is un-American.

Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, represents Vermont in the United States Senate. He delivered this speech on the Senate floor on June 5.

Washington, D.C.

Throughout history, including, at times, in our own country many years ago, the forcible separation of families has been used as an instrument of terror.

I struggle to imagine a more damaging and inhumane governmental policy than to forcibly and needlessly tear children away from their parents. For decades, the United States has rightly led the world in condemning such practices as flagrant abuses of government power and human rights.

Yet today, in an extraordinary breach of our most basic values, the Trump administration is now regularly employing these very tactics.

It is true that some children were separated from their parents during the previous administration. I vocally and forcefully opposed it then, as I believed — and am still convinced — that there are alternatives that are far more humane and effective than tearing apart families.

But the family separation that we are seeing today is so vastly different — both in purpose and in scope — than what occurred during the Obama administration that there is no comparison.

Separation is no longer limited to narrow circumstances when it is arguably in the child’s best interest. Separating children, even infants, from their parents is now being carried out as a blanket policy. It is occurring by design.

* * *

The Trump administration’s decision to criminally prosecute every adult who arrives at our border without documentation establishes a de facto family separation policy. It will rip thousands of innocent children away from their loved ones.

The administration’s claim that this policy is necessary to deter illegal border crossings rings hollow. The administration is also separating families who follow the rules and lawfully present themselves at ports of entry with claims of asylum.

There is simply no way to sanitize the cruelty of this policy.

* * *

The anguish we are inflicting is evident in the story of each parent who is losing a child. Here are the words of Maria, who was separated from her children, ages 7 and 2, just last month when she sought asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry:

“[A]t about 8 a.m. they called just my two children and I went out and they said ‘Miss, only they are going.’

“[...T]he officer said, ‘They are here for them. Can the little one walk?’

“‘Yes,’ I told the officer.

“‘Let him down,’ they told me.

“The older one took his hand and they started to walk. Then they turned around to look and when they saw that I was not going after them they cried....”

Here is the ordeal of another mother with two sons, ages 4 and 10, who was seeking asylum from El Salvador:

“I was only given five minutes to say goodbye before [my sons] were torn from me. My babies started crying when they found out we were going to be separated. It breaks my heart to remember my youngest wail, “Why do I have to leave?”

“[...]My youngest cried and screamed in protest because he did not want to leave my side. My oldest son was also confused and did not understand what was happening. In tears myself, I asked my boys to be brave, and I promised we would be together again soon. I begged the woman who took my children to keep them together so they could at least have each other.”

And this is a description from a father seeking asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry:

“I was told that I was going to be separated from my son. I suffer from high blood pressure and felt as though I was having a heart attack.[...]

“I feel like I was in shock and do not remember what happened next or even how I got to the detention center after that.

“All I can remember is how much my son and I were both crying as they took him away.”

* * *

The anguish inflicted on these parents and children at the moment of separation is excruciating. For those of us who are parents, it is inconceivable.

But it is just the beginning.

Parents are given limited information — sometimes none at all — about where their children are being held, in whose care, or for how long.

Some have begged the courts for information, frustrating judges who know little more than the parents. Some are deported while their children remain in unknown locations in the United States.

Pediatricians describe the trauma that can be inflicted on these children as toxic stress. It results in lasting damage to a child’s health.

Who here would tolerate such a thing if it were happening to American children? Who would defend such an abhorrent practice if it were happening in Russia, or any other country?

Not one of us.

All of this lays bare the ugly truth about the true intent of this policy — to strike fear into the hearts of families seeking refuge from gang violence and chaos in their home countries.

The message could not be clearer: If you try to seek refuge in the United States, which is your right under international law, we will punish you and your family. You are not welcome here.

* * *

This policy unquestionably flouts our domestic and international legal obligations. Worse, it flies in the face of who we are.

We have shown the world that protecting our homeland is not incompatible with providing refuge to the vulnerable. We have proven that being a nation of laws is not antithetical to being a country of compassion. And we have demonstrated that our unmatched power is derived in part from how we treat the most powerless among us.

President Trump’s policy abandons our principles and, indeed, our identity as the moral beacon for the world. Republicans and Democrats must speak with one voice to condemn this cruelty. Family separation is no more a Republican policy than it is a Democratic policy. In fact, it is neither. It is un-American.

The United States must not be seen as terrorizing children to score political points. We must not be seen as pursuing policies with the intent of inflicting pain and anguish on vulnerable people.

I hope senators of both parties will join me in condemning this outrageous practice of forced family separation.

We are better than this. It is time we acted like it.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #463 (Wednesday, June 13, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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