I get most of my news while breastfeeding or rocking my child to sleep. It seems to be the only point in my day when I can settle my mind and read about what’s going on in the world.
So it was last week, my big six-month-old conked out, open-mouthed in my arms, that I began reading in depth about what’s going on at our borders.
Are you a parent?
Think back with me to your child’s youngest days. The hot, almost sticky, skin-to-skin sensation of a sleeping baby. Their sweet little heads lolling back and forth as you slowly readjust to get more comfortable, wincing as you strain to keep your body level and your child asleep. For a moment, allow yourself to travel back in time. The heaviness in your arms. The feeling that your heart might burst as you look down and examine their eyelashes, their big cheeks, their perfect little lips; watching their tiny fingers and chubby little hands curled around your own. Knowing that if you do nothing else in your life, keeping your child safe and happy will have been enough.
There is no impulse like knowing your child, whatever age, is in danger, and wanting to rush to their aid. There is no instinct or strength or speed like that of a parent who sees that her child is in anguish and in need of comfort. There is no feeling like scooping that child up and assuring them that, while it still may hurt or sting or ache, they are not alone.
Imagine wanting a better life for your son or daughter. Imagine the courage and the guilt together in your heart as you pluck your angel from the only home they’ve ever known to chance that you might find a better one. Imagine that, upon reaching the gates of the only option you feel you have left, you are greeted by a team of Americans who send you one direction and your child, your treasure, your whole heart walking outside your body, in another.
Think about what it must be like for these parents, whose children are crying, confused, begging to be taken back to their moms and dads, wondering why their mothers and fathers are powerless to stop what’s happening to them. And what it must be like for the children.
These are normally not the sorts of situations I dive into on this blog. I’m not one for sensationalism and I don’t do well when people are shoving gory details in my face. I always turn off those horrible ASPCA commercials because I don’t want to be emotionally manipulated by Sarah McLachlan. The truth is, I’m a WASP through and through. I find it vulgar. Do you want my support? Fine. Then reason it out with me. Talk to me about it calmly. Don’t throw gratuitous details at me, then look at me with wide eyes saying, “Well? WELL??”
But I recently watched a documentary on HBO (John McCain: For Whom The Bell Tolls), and I was struck by something Senator McCain years ago said when describing the photos of the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib:
“I’m gravely concerned that many Americans will have the same impulse as I did when I saw this picture, and that’s to turn away from them. And...they will turn away...unless this issue is quickly resolved with full disclosure so that we can be assured and comforted that something that we never believed could happen will never happen again.”
It hit me in particular because it is my impulse to turn away. I get my news from straightforward, silky-voiced NPR correspondents, or from theSkimm’s newsletter. I can’t remember the last time I watched cable, or even local, news, because I don’t want to be subjected to the constant and unrelenting horror show that is the 24-hour news cycle of doom. In many ways, I feel it makes me less likely to respond, because when I feel like the world is replete with darkness, I’m too overwhelmed to know where to begin.
But Senator McCain is right. Sometimes we must face the ugliness. Sometimes we must look at the photos square on and sit with the reality of what’s taking place in our country. Something, as he said, that we “never believed could happen.”
While we’re eating dinner, or driving to work, or rocking our own children to sleep, these children, totaling almost 2,000 in number, ast least 100 of whom are under 4 years old, are being separated from their families with no assurance as to when or if they’ll see their parents again. Their caretakers are doing their best, but they aren’t even allowed to pick up or hold the babies when they cry. And if that sentence alone didn’t send a chill down your spine, you need to read it again, and picture your own child, if you have one, in a room, sitting on the floor, crying alone with no one to comfort them. Tears spring into my eyes even typing out that reality - let alone imagining that someone is living it.
Though the party politics of this issue aren’t important at all compared to the issue itself, it’s worth noting that in the past few days, politicians from all sides have taken a stand against separating families at the border.
In an op-ed, Former First Lady Laura Bush called the practice “cruel” and “immoral,” shining a special light with this sentence: “Imagine not being able to pick up a child who is not yet out of diapers.” Former President Bill Clinton tweeted yesterday, “These children should not be a negotiating tool. And reuniting them with their families would reaffirm America’s belief in & support for all parents who love their children." Even First Lady Melania Trump said through a spokesperson that “...we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart."
(Though, to be perfectly clear, family separation is not a law, but the result of a particular interpretation of the law that requires all asylum seekers to be prosecuted and jailed, which means that inevitably the children traveling with asylum-seekers are separated from them. This policy is not the “work of Democrats,” but instead has been set into motion by the Trump administration. You can read a comprehensive and detailed article about where this policy originated, the actual laws surrounding illegal immigration, and the state of immigrant children and families here.)
In that same HBO documentary, Barack Obama said, “American leadership...is not a matter of us having the biggest Air Force or latest ships or mightiest weaponry; it has to do with people thinking we’re more likely than not to do the right thing.”
In case you aren’t a parent and don’t feel the tug at your heart strings, there are many ways this should appeal to us as countrymen: if you’re a person of honor, there isn’t any in this. If you’re a fiscal conservative, imagine the resources being spent on detaining thousands of children. If you’re familiar with psychology, you know the damage that traumatic stress and separation does to the developing brains of young people. If you’re a Christian, contrary to what I cannot. Even. Talk. About. Being used as a defense of this practice, the prevailing wisdom is that Christ welcomed the poor, the outcast, and, of course, the children.
I made a decision the night I dove into reading about family separation, allowing the sadness and grief to wash over me instead of keeping it at a safe emotional distance, that I would call my representatives every day until there is progress. Illegal immigration is incredibly complex, with an abundance of opinions and possible solutions on both sides of the aisle, but if people are looking to Americans as people who are “more likely than not to do the right thing,” this isn’t it. Period.
In writing this post, I revisited the poem that is emblazoned inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. I couldn’t remember if the line read, “yearning to be free” or, “yearning to breathe free,” and I just wanted to check before I wrote it wrong and looked like a dope.
But then I read the whole poem. And, just like the quotes from leaders I’ve shared with you already, the last stanza in its entirety served as a gloves-off, Sarah McLaughlin-scored reminder of what this country is supposed to be about:
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Oh, that our hearts may be pricked and our prejudices challenged and our fingers worked to the bone from calling and calling and calling as we live our lives while children are being treated like someone’s wretched refuse; the heaviness and weight of their sleeping forms being rocked and cherished by no one in particular.
Children of all ages deserve to be held. Our leadership deserves to be held accountable. I hope you’ll join me in calling for change.
To learn more, visit any of the links embedded above, or aclu.com where you can find a script to call your representatives.