My boys are almost four and six-and-a half now, and sleep in their own bunk bed. But sometimes, they wake up, startled by some bad dream, or thirsty, or needing reassurance. Always, when they do, they call, “Mama!” and I wake from my own sleep to soothe them. Now, when they do, a thought comes to me, as I smooth my child’s hair and tuck him back in: that our government is moving to deny this type of reassurance to some children as a matter of policy. That our government has made a conscious, intentional decision to refuse some mothers the basic human right to comfort and protect their children, their toddlers, their babies.
On those nights that I comfort my children, I think of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen announcements that every undocumented person who arrives at the US border will be treated as a criminal, that their children, even those as young as a year old, will be literally torn from their arms.
This has already happened to more than 700 kids, 100 of them under age 4. Now it could happen to thousands more.
Their reasoning for inflicting this nightmare on children and parents, is that it’s cruelty will be a deterrent. That refugees and asylum seekers, hearing word that such a fate awaits them in the United States, will simply decide not to come.
Besides being a mother, I have been a teacher and youth worker in the diverse city of Oakland, California for the past 15 years. I hear from the children I have worked with, stories that usually stay hidden, and only come out shakingly, while children blink back tears. I hear the violence and fear, the wars, the rapes, the abuses, that drive families to leave their homes, to leave everything, to flee to safety.
I think about a poem I once read, by Warsan Shire: “no one leaves home/ unless home is the mouth of a shark/it’s not something you ever thought of doing/until the blade burnt threats into/ your neck.” From the stories of the children I have worked with, I know this feeling explains why their families immigrated.
Faced with impossible choices, families choose the version that will give their children a chance to survive. It’s why some of my ancestors came here from Ireland during the Potato Famine. It’s why other ancestors of mine rode in trains and crowed ships to escape the desperate poverty and violence they faced in Eastern Europe. I wonder if that is how Jeff Sessions and Kirstjen Nielsen imagine their own ancestors arriving here.
Health care professionals and scientists tell us that kids enduring the trauma of forced separation have lifelong consequences. A trauma like that literally re-wires a growing brain. But as a mother, I don’t need to hear that from a scientist. I know, in the deepest part of my heart, that this policy is a form of torture.
Once the kids are taken from their families, they are placed with “sponsors”, while their parents are held in jail. What happens next? It’s hard to answer that. A recent report revealed that of 6,000 unaccompanied minors placed in homes in the US by immigration officials, more than two dozen were placed in living situations where they were sexually assaulted or starved. Several were sold by human traffickers to work as slaves on an egg farm in Ohio, while 1500 children were simply lost. The government has no idea what has become of them.
There was a time in the history of our country when families arriving on our shores were forcibly separated as a matter of policy. It was a common practice during the slave trade, designed to break people, to undercut their humanity, to damage them forever. Most of us can acknowledge, by now, the shameful travesty of slavery.
Yet our new policy treads dangerously close to embracing a key tenant of that era: that some people, some parents, some children, don’t deserve what we want for our own families. That some people don’t deserve their humanity.
I can only hope as a mother, as a great-great-grandchild of immigrants, as a teacher, and as an American, that our own humanity is not so damaged that we will sit back, and allow this to occur to children in our country. I can only hope that we will speak up in our politicians' offices, in our communities, wherever we can, so that no child is calling “Mama! Where are you?” in the night, and having their call, by our government’s intention, go unanswered.