The scandal of small children being routinely separated from their migrant parents on the U.S. southern border has brought to a boil tensions over the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies. After days of public anger and contradictory spin from the administration, Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive action he said would end such separations. But the larger issue will persist — and, while this president and his administration did not create it, they represent a particularly ugly side of it that will impede any meaningful progress.
The state-authorized child-snatching shocked the nation’s conscience with its sheer cruelty: screaming and crying children, sometimes mere toddlers, ripped away from their despairing fathers and mothers and taken to detention; siblings in holding centers forbidden to hug each other because it’s against regulations. This stems from the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all illegal border crossers, including asylum seekers; when adults who bring children with them are prosecuted, current law requires that the children be kept separately. But that’s at the discretion of the president.
But a troubling cruelty has manifested itself in many other aspects of U.S. immigration policy in the 21st Century — an attitude extremely different from the generosity and human kindness that I have found to be the general norm in American life ever since my family came here as refugees from the Soviet Union nearly four decades ago.
Far away from the border crisis, other tragic stories are unfolding. Right now, Xiu Qing You, a Queens resident who is married to a U.S. citizen and has two American children, faces deportation to China after being arrested by immigration control agents in March when he came in for an interview for permanent residency. While You was issued an order of deportation in 2002 after his request for political asylum was denied, the order was never enforced until now. And in Ohio, Miguel De Leon, a restaurant owner and father of four who has lived here legally for 30 years, is awaiting deportation to Mexico because he pleaded guilty to a minor drug charge 14 years ago.
Such inhumanities did not begin with Trump. Deportations of legal permanent residents over old petty offenses — a bad check, a bar scuffle, marijuana possession — were authorized by Congress in 1996 and have been happening ever since. In some cases, people brought here as children who didn’t realize they were not U.S. citizens were shipped off to “home” countries they had never seen.
In an Atlantic article chronicling his brother’s ultimately successful but arduous fight against deportation over a past minor conviction, British-born writer Edward Delman described the immigration enforcement system as “incomprehensible and vindictive.” Far too often in recent years, it has been exactly that.
There is a legitimate debate to be had over border security and immigration. The United States cannot grant asylum to every person anywhere on the globe who would seek a better life here, especially when refugees are eligible for an array of tax-funded public services. And we certainly have every right to take security to screen out those who arrive here seeking to do us harm.
But in a free country, the state should never treat humans as pawns whose lives it can disrupt and destroy at will. Any American immigration policy must begin with that cardinal principle.
Unfortunately, immigration reform has been has held hostage to a minority of Americans who see immigrants as a peril — sometimes in starkly racial terms, as when Ann Coulter warns of “the browning of America.” The Trump administration, brought to power in large part by that xenophobic impulse, is open about its determination to curb even legal immigration. Trump speaks of migrants “infesting” our land, dehumanizing rhetoric that has no place in a decent society.
The stark reality of children taken from parents, which has prompted an outcry from many Republicans, has reminded us of the importance of basic decency. As we go forward from here, it should never be forgotten.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.