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Separating families is not policy

The tragic turn in U.S. treatment of immigrants at the border will haunt us.

A girl who traveled with the caravan of

A girl who traveled with the caravan of Central American migrants awakens earlier this month at a camp the group set up at the U.S.-Mexico border to request asylum. Credit: AP / Hans-Maximo Musielik

There is nothing worse for a child than getting lost — separated from mom or dad, even for a moment, let alone a lifetime.

When Jews were rounded up by the Nazis, families were separated. Many loved ones never found each other, only learning years later who died or survived the Holocaust through determination, escape or liberation. At the start of World War II in 1939, about 1.6 million Jewish children lived in the territories that would become occupied by German armies or allies. When the war ended six years later, more than 1 million Jewish children were dead, and many thousands were left on their own after being hidden or liberated from camps.

Fast forward to today. During his time in office, President Donald Trump has ramped up arrests of immigrants here illegally, including children. In many cases, immigrant children are separated from their parents — separated by borders, fences, walls, laws and rules that remain murky because of a system that has failed to produce comprehensive reform of immigration laws. Beyond the legalities is the pervasive climate of fear and anxiety promoted by Trump and his supporters through social media — leading many people to lose all sensibility and civility in their interactions with people who speak a different language or look non-American.

Some of the policy shifts have generated headlines, including Trump’s decision in September to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. That measure, put in place by former President Barack Obama in 2012, allowed nearly 800,000 young people brought illegally to the United States as children to live, work and study in the country without fear of deportation. A recent court decision questioned the legality of ending DACA and the issue will likely be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, young people live in the shadows and in fear of being caught.

Over the next few months, life for children of immigrants is likely to get worse in America, Mexico, Central America, Syria and Afghanistan. We are cutting off access to America for people fleeing political persecution and war. Under a new policy adopted recently, the administration vowed to more frequently separate families at the U.S.-Mexico border, for example, using a federal statute that prohibits illegal entry. The policy follows an April announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that calls for U.S. attorney’s offices along the border to prosecute cases of suspected illegal entry “to the extent practicable.”

The new measure means a broader pool of people caught at the border will likely face criminal charges — including parents who arrive with their children. In turn, the children will be classified as unaccompanied minors, which will put them in the custody of the Health and Human Resources Department until they can be placed with a guardian.

The Statue of Liberty stands each day in the New York harbor and she must be heartbroken. What has happened to us? Were we not the guardians of freedom, the place of safe passage, a haven for those chased away by pogroms and wars? And what of our children — the young ones who arrive here and find their way to towns and cities and make their parents proud by becoming assets to America, their adopted home?

If we empty our country of all the children, choosing only those who pass the litmus test of today, we shall become a dark, barren and angry nation.

Tara D. Sonenshine served as U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and advises students at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

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