One of the most disturbing qualities of 21st-century politics is its unparalleled tendency to bring out the worst in people. As humans, we often get so caught up in our “team spirit” – the irrational insistences that our political party/favorite politician/commentator of choice must be in the right and that the other side must be in the wrong – that we often end up embracing inconsistent and nonsensical positions based not upon which policies are right and moral, but upon which politician or party is on which side of a given issue. Sometimes, we defend the indefensible and politicize issues that are in fact black-and-white, injecting copious doses of controversy into issues that should be entirely uncontroversial.
One such issue has come to a head within the last couple of weeks. Specifically, the federal government recently initiated the practice of separating parents from their children when families are apprehended attempting to illegally cross the Southern border. While these illegal immigrants await court hearings, during which many will request asylum in the United States, their children are stripped away from them and detained in separate facilities, in small cells walled in by wire (media outlets have compared these cells to cages). Some of these children are infants or disabled. (One child separated from his family is an 8-month-old baby who was taken from his mother’s arms. Another is a 10-year-old girl with Down Syndrome.) While the government has refused to divulge much information about the new policy, it’s been reported that border officials have told parents that their children were going to be bathed, fed and returned to them shortly – only to be shipped off to separate facilities while the parents spend anxious, miserable months awaiting hearings.
The administration’s new policy of separating children from their parents at the border has been met with scathing criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike, conservatives, liberals, moderates, and religious groups of all denominations – including both the OU and Agudath Israel of America. And yet, Trump’s most die-hard supporters refuse to recognize the obvious. They refuse to acknowledge the simple truth that no infant deserves to be stripped from his/her mother’s embrace; that no parent deserves to be kept from his/her child just for trying to find a better life in a country whose legal immigration system is completely broken; that those children and parents are every bit as human as every American parent and child; and that unnecessarily breaking families apart is immoral, cruel, and causes untold anguish and heartbreak. Instead of demonstrating compassion and recognizing that the president is doing something incredibly cruel and equally wrong, some feel the need to compare these forced family breakups to “summer camps” (courtesy of Trump acolyte and Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham) or to justify the practice on the basis that immigrants are “destroying our culture” (a thinly-veiled dog whistle delivered by influential pro-Trump activist Charlie Kirk).
To be perfectly clear, this is a Trump administration policy – contrary to President Trump’s wildly ludicrous claim that “the Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda.” (The president did not elaborate on which specific legislative initiatives on the part of Democrats have caused his administration to tear families apart, particularly as Democrats’ legislative agenda has been utterly stymied with Republicans in full control of Washington.) There is no law that requires border patrol agents to detain parents and children separately – again, contrary to the president’s patently false, repeated claims that he is required by law to do so. It is a Trump administration policy which was implemented quite recently via a directive from the White House, and it is a policy which Trump could end with a single phone call, as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have pointed out. Some Trump supporters have suggested that previous presidents did the same, but this is yet another lie propagated by Team Trump. (While previous administrations detained unaccompanied minors at the border, they did not forcibly separate families that arrived together.)
There have been several instances in the past week when administration officials have gone off-message on this topic – presumably because they are confused by the administration’s insistence that it is required to break up families, a claim that is so demonstrably false. Jeff Sessions, the long-suffering attorney general, essentially admitted that it was up to the administration whether to separate detained families, referring to such separations as “choices” in remarks delivered Friday morning. Likewise, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the wisdom of the policy on Monday – contradicting her earlier (false) statement on Twitter that “we do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” The Trump administration’s family separation policy is so blatantly heartless that its officials feel the need to deny that the policy exists at all … at least some of the time.
Don’t get me wrong; illegal immigration is criminal and in some instances harmful. As a nation, we should have precisely zero tolerance for it. We need to secure our southern border. We need to build more fencing in areas that are difficult to constantly monitor. We need to fix our broken legal immigration system, improve the work and student visa programs (and beef up the enforcement thereof), and implement other commonsense reforms such as e-Verify. What we absolutely, unequivocally do NOT need to do is separate young children from their parents for months at a time when we can just as easily detain them together. We can keep our borders safe while keeping our humanity intact. We can demonstrate our resolve while also demonstrating our compassion. There is no rhyme, reason, or requirement that justifies the heinous policy being callously implemented by the Trump administration.
Tearing babies out of their mothers’ arms has nothing to do with conservatism or liberalism. It has nothing to do with support for or opposition to illegal immigration. It doesn’t even have anything to do with support for or opposition to President Trump. What it comes down to is good versus evil, compassionate kindness versus senseless cruelty.
Humanity is not partisan. Empathy is not controversial. Breaking up families, scarring children for life, striking terror and uncertainty into the hearts of parents – none of these are conservative values. Like the OU, Agudath Israel, and countless others from all walks of life, we must stand against cruelty even while maintaining our dearly-held, perhaps highly conservative, opinions about immigration. Because some things are more consequential than which political “teams” we may identify with.
Unfortunately, it is often a simple matter to trivialize the emotional trauma – torture, even – of those who are not just like us. Taking a moral stand on an issue of basic human decency can be a lot more challenging. When such issues arrive at the fore of the collective American consciousness, it can be far too easy to retreat to the all-too-familiar enclaves of political and cultural tribalism. But sacrificing our humanity for politics is never worth the price it demands of us. As Jews and as Americans, let’s be better than conservative or liberal. Let’s be compassionate human beings.
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