Cruel and revolting are the two words that stick with me as I revisit in my mind the Trump administration proposal to separate infants and young children from their parents when those parents apply for asylum at the U.S. border. We don’t typically separate children this age from their parents even if their parents are being tried for serious crimes – but those seeking refugee status are not even suspected of breaking U.S. law. (They could not have done so since they have not even entered the U.S., and do so only in federal custody. This is, almost by definition, the most law abiding group of individuals you could target.) They would be separated from their children precisely because, instead of fleeing across the U.S. border illegally, they complied with U.S. law and formally applied for asylum, a right guaranteed to them by international law under procedures established by U.S. law.
The Trump administration doesn’t like this right, and disagrees with the current procedures – and it now debating whether to punish refugees who behave legally, as a means of frightening them from seeking asylum regardless of the persecution they may face. Indeed, it has already, on a limited scale, begun separating children form their parents after those parents applied for asylum. Officials admit that they are trying to intimidate others from exercising their rights by threatening them with the loss of their children.
The media has, inadvertently, muddled this issue by reporting what the Administration claims as its goal is – to deal with illegal migration – rather than the reality, which is to punish legal asylum seekers complying with American law. The NYT’s story on the issue was headlined “Trump Administration Considers Separating Families to Combat Illegal Immigration.” The Times cited a letter documenting current instances of the practice – but overlooks the letter focused exclusively on legal asylum seekers, not families apprehended for crossing the border illegally. It is thus legal asylum seekers the Administration wants to intimidate, a goal reminiscent of the historic use of the threat of government sanctions like false imprisonment used to discourage African and Mexican Americans from voting in the Jim Crow South. Other media outlets similarly confused legal asylum seekers with border crossers (U.S. law would also appear to prohibit the separation of families who did cross the border illegally, particularly as a means of intimidation. Global norms and ethical standards certainly do.)
In its campaign against immigration, Trump has shown a marked, and too little noted, obsession with refugees as opposed to other classes of legal immigrants. As part of his travel ban on visitors from Muslim countries, Trump for 120 days stopped ALL refugee admissions to the United States. He has now lifted that global ban, but left 11 countries, nine of them Muslim, on what he asserted was a temporary “do not admit refugees” list. In doing he has flatly closed the door to refugees from these locations, including minor children, citing “security concerns”!
Since many of the refugee families being denied entry are Iraqis who worked for the U.S. occupation, and are threatened because of that service, this policy is a shocking contrast to the America I grew up in. In 1956, when the Hungarian people rose up against the Soviet occupation, 30,000 Hungarian refugees were accepted into the United States, which at the time had a population about half the current size and an economy a quarter as big. (Current U.S. law caps refugee admissions at 50,000 a year from all countries.) But 30,000 refugees did not over-stress America’s generosity and capacity to make room for those who were being persecuted in 1956. My small suburban town in Maryland, population 1000, took in 4 of the Hungarian refugees. An equivalent level of migration nationally would have amounted to a staggering 600,000 Hungarian refugees – yet Garrett Park was not meaningfully changed and certainly in no way harmed by our four new neighbors.
The day after the NYT reported on the Trump administration’s proposals to wrest babies from their parent’s arms if they dare show up and apply for asylum, Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote an eloquent and moving column on what Trump is doing to America’s culture and values, which closed, “This is not America. It must be fought for and won back.”
Trump’s proposed use of family separation as an intimidation strategy against legal asylum seekers underscores the truth of what Cohen wrote.