In March of 2017, then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly spoke with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about a possible new initiative separating children from their parents at the border. “I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America from getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up through Mexico to the United States … The vast majority of the young women are sexually abused,” he said.
Blitzer pressed Kelly to clarify: “If you get some young kids who manage to sneak into the United States with their parents, are Department of Homeland Security personnel going to separate the children from their moms and dads?”
“We have tremendous experience with unaccompanied minors,” Kelly responded. “We turn them over to HHS and they do a very good job in putting them in foster care or linking them up with family members in the United States. Yes, in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network I’m considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents.”
A little over a year later, we’re seeing that “tremendous experience” playing out real time, with lawmakers and Americans reacting viscerally to the news that nearly 2,000 children were taken from their parents and put into facilities or foster care in six weeks between April and May. New audio released by ProPublica of children screaming for their mothers and fathers is excruciating, and impossible to sit through comfortably.
This is something conservatives once deeply understood: Children need their parents, and their absence is damaging. It’s why stay-at-home motherhood is common among religious conservatives and is deeply honored, and one of the many reasons why homeschooling is viewed as a sacrifice in favor of a child’s emotional well-being, in addition to their academic and spiritual development. It’s why conservative think tanks, religious groups, and organizations devote vast amounts of resources to defending the importance of fathers in the lives of their children.
Outside of the Trump administration, many conservatives see the family-separation policy in precisely these terms. The writer Meg Conley pointed to the story of a Honduran woman who fled her country after her home was tear gassed. She was separated from her 18-month-old son for more than two months, the child in foster care, and the mother in a detainment center. “Have you ever lost your child for just a moment?” Conley, herself a mother of three, asked.
Around the corner in a grocery store? Or in a little crowd of people in a big place? You know that panicked feeling? The one that thickens your throat and pulses in your fingertips? The one you’re feeling as you call out your child’s name over and over again. Louder and louder until finally their head bobs up near the oranges, or their hand grabs yours from behind? Imagine that feeling. For months. In a place you cannot leave, where you cannot easily access a phone and you do not speak the language.
The cruelty of this policy pushed former First Lady Laura Bush to speak out. In The Washington Post, she wrote:
Recently, Colleen Kraft, who heads the American Academy of Pediatrics, visited a shelter run by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. She reported that while there were beds, toys, crayons, a playground and diaper changes, the people working at the shelter had been instructed not to pick up or touch the children to comfort them. Imagine not being able to pick up a child who is not yet out of diapers.
A handful of elected Republicans have done the same. Senator Ben Sasse released a statement calling the practice “wicked,” and Senator Ted Cruz introduced legislation that would keep families together until expedited hearings are held to decide if they are to be either deported or granted asylum as a family unit.
But their statements only make it more disheartening and infuriating to see so many Republican politicians and commentators belonging to the supposed party of family values, keeping silent about the policy or even defending it. A new CBS poll showed two-thirds of those surveyed disapproved of the child-separation policy, a result driven largely by opposition from Democrats, independents, and younger and more moderate Republicans. Among members of the GOP, opinions split more evenly, with 39 percent disapproving of the policy, while 36 percent approve.
That result is partially driven by coverage in certain right-wing outlets. At Breitbart, Joel Pollak’s reports from the border presented the conditions at these warehouses as “comfortable,” featuring new clothes, a clinic, and even a “prom” for detainees. “The real scandal is how the media have portrayed the shelters,” he wrote.
But the primary concern for opponents of the policy is not material comforts or deprivation, but the policy of forcibly separating parents from their children. Not only can nothing replace a mother’s love, its absence has serious physical and emotional ramifications for children. That’s why American Academy of Pediatrics President Colleen Kraft told BuzzFeed News, “[Forcible separation can] cause irreparable harm to lifelong development by disrupting a child’s brain architecture.”
In his CNN interview, John Kelly explained that the policy would be enacted in order to deter parents from making the journey to America with their child. From his perch in the federal government, Kelly and his department believed they knew what is best for these families, many of whom are fleeing gang violence. While President Trump calls MS-13 members violent animals, he simultaneously penalizes those who are fleeing countries where the violence they inflict is worsening by the day. In response to those flooding the border illegally, the United States government is using its power to keep parents and their children apart because the parents have committed what is, in actuality, a misdemeanor offense. In a world before Trump, if the federal government had tried to justify indefinitely separating families and putting minors into the care of unaccountable behemoth state agencies, just because parents had committed a misdemeanor, it would have sent the political right into a frenzy. And it’s not even working: Despite the risk of separation, parents have still decided to make the dangerous journey. It says something about the danger these families are facing at home that so many still think it’s better to have their kids kept in warehouses than remain.
Conservative defenders of the administration have claimed the left is using children as political pawns, when in fact it is quite the opposite. The Trump administration has decided to manipulate parents in the most heart-wrenching way into not crossing the border illegally. If Trump doesn’t want Americans to turn against him in higher numbers, he should stop providing the most tragic ammunition imaginable. As he is wont to do, Trump has apparently decided any sign of retreat is a sign of weakness, and has so far remained defiant in the face of outcry against the policy.
This isn’t, however, a typical outrage from which the masses will soon move on. Mothers and fathers have now heard the voices of screaming children separated from their families, and those cries can’t be easily forgotten.