I have two small children. When they cry from pain or fear, I feel desperate to help them and find it hard to think. So I could not bring myself to listen to the recorded cries of children separated from their parents by immigration officials, circulating in the news today. I know what it sounds like, and I don’t think I could hear it without breaking down.
But there are so, so many of them. Thousands upon thousands. And Americans have become afraid of the need and suspicious of the needy. In our eyes their suffering has become part of them—they are the “huddled masses,” faceless, nameless, and hard to relate to. We ask, “how did they get this way?”; and cannot help but feel superior, or question their morality. These parents are risking too much, we think. What kind of parent sends a child alone across a foreign border, we wonder, or involves them in a crime? They knew full well what they were getting into, by crossing illegally, we say. Why don’t they stay and improve their country? It isn’t our job to rescue the victims of foreign countries and mafias, we suggest.
On paper the laws of asylum remain generous, but the system has started to reflect fear over generosity. Asylum can only be applied for within the country, but we have stopped letting most of these asylum seekers in at the border. Desperate, they cross anyway. Then the adult asylum seekers who cross the border without approval are caught and charged with misdemeanors, while their children are not considered culpable; so the two groups must be processed differently. Then asylum case processing takes time, so we jail these candidates and contain their children indefinitely. And suddenly we find ourselves here: where thousands of children are being separated from their parents by border agents (who never signed up for this and were never trained for this), where it is justified as the natural consequence of these parents’ lawlessness and recklessness, and where the same religious texts that undergird our highest ideals are being cited to preserve our lowest offences.
In Myrdal’s time the whites asked the same questions to themselves, “How did the negroes get this way?” The truth of our complicity was too painful, too close to home, and too out of step with our self-image as a nation of freedom and equality. Humans have often found the extremes of good and evil living within themselves difficult to account for. Myrdal’s answer was the only answer: we must reverse or interrupt the cycle, or it will just get worse. We will either live up to our ideals or fall into cruelty. Sending them “back” is not an option—there is no way back to the choices of decades ago, and the place whence they came no longer exists for them. How can we fault them coming, or staying? How inhumane would we have to be, to be worse than the threats of war and anarchy they are fleeing from? How far will we go in testing this question? This is much bigger than any one politician or bureaucrat. It is our American dilemma.
Next to me on the bed, my baby son dozes, and his sister is sleeping in the next room. His skin is so soft; his ears, nose, and chin so perfect. His needs tax me, of course. I write this very essay hoping, praying he will sleep a bit longer and let me finish. I am always tired in one sense or another, and motherhood is a bubble that dampens the cries of those outside. Yet today for me, and I think for many others, the sounds of children crying at the border broke through.
I don’t know if I am brave enough to walk in the streets or stand between these families and the law. I feel so sad and so small. When the future looks back, it will likely see evil spreading and good people doing nothing, and me among them. What I can do is sit on the bed and write, with the freedom I never earned and what energy I have left from caring for my children. And I can pray that my son sleeps a bit longer, and that he is never ripped from my arms, and that he grows to be braver and wiser than those that came before.