US must find its moral voice after 'baby jails'



When US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a 'zero tolerance policy' for immigrants crossing the border illegally, it meant that everyone apprehended would be detained and prosecuted. If adults were crossing with their children, their children would be forcibly taken from them and sent to detention centers. Their quarters have been accurately described as cages.

Donald TrumpAfter the cries of children screaming for their parents stirred at least the consciences of voters who respond to random sample polling, the president issued an executive order, temporarily halting the separation of families. It said nothing about reuniting those already separated.

Now a federal judge in California has issued a nationwide injunction stopping the practice of family separation, and ordering that all families be reunited within 30 days, and those with children under the age of five reunited within 14 days.

Despite the Office of Refugee Resettlement setting up a hotline for parents to call to find their children, some families are separated by thousands of miles and are given next to no information about each other's whereabouts. An immigration lawyer described one federal judge's reaction to The Washington Post:

'At one point, he slammed his hand on the desk, sending a pen flying. This type of emotional display is unheard of in federal court. "I can't understand this," the judge said. "If someone at the jail takes your wallet, they give you a receipt. They take your kids, and you get nothing? Not even a slip of paper?"'

In short, reuniting the families would be extremely difficult for a well-functioning government office that had been given clear directives — God help those charged with the task now.

Even if all of the families that have been coldly, clinically, 'legally' torn apart can be reunited, much of the damage done is likely irreparable. Social workers and scientists have spoken out on the permanent damage inflicted on children separated from their parents. But who will speak on the scar left on the national conscience?


"It is typical buck-passing that will allow the architects of this chaos to leave government and make millions as consultants, instead of spending the rest of their lives in prison."


'A chaotic circumstance of the government's own making,' was how that federal judge described the Trump administration's handling of immigration at the US-Mexico border.

We've heard stories of children being taken from a mother's breast while nursing, a 15-year-old boy running away from a Walmart-turned-child-prison back across Mexico to Honduras, detention centre employees warning detained children not to talk to reporters, and uncertified doctors prescribing psychotropic drugs to migrant children.

More than 2500 children separated from their families. A father breaking down when he, having been deported back to El Salvador, heard his six-year-old daughter's voice over the telephone, back in America.

'A chaotic circumstance' might be strong language from a court, but it still reeks of sanitised euphemism, bureaucratic language covering up trauma, torture and terror. It is typical buck-passing that will allow the architects of this chaos to leave government and make millions as consultants, instead of spending the rest of their lives in prison.

There are more uncomfortable questions that Americans have struggled to raise. Do we not separate families every time we deport a father or mother who has been peacefully living and working in the United States? Who are the people, companies and organisations who are profiting off of the detention of immigrant children? What if we extended our outrage and analysis toward our criminal justice system as a whole, which accounts for almost 25 per cent of the world's prisoners?

As if the voice of our conscience was too loud, too painful to listen to, instead of beholding in remorse the horror we have inflicted, our national dialogue is consumed by debate about how 'civil' we have been with one another.

We can have as many civil conversations as we like, but they will all be worth nothing if we cannot make moral claims on ourselves and one another.

The truth is that United States has vacated any moral language or analysis to what can be described as 'relatavism' at best, and more accurately as self-interested whataboutism.

Could we recover (or perhaps discover for the first time) our moral voice to make amends for the jailing of immigrant children?  

A quick survey history will show that we do not typically do this. Not after the slaughter of Native American people, culture and land. Not after slavery. Not after internment camps. Not after war and conquest. Our apologies are rare and the difficult, necessary work of restorative justice is even rarer.



Zac_DavisZac Davis is writer and an associate editor for digital strategy at America magazine and a host of Jesuitical, a podcast for young Catholics. He was named the 2017 Multimedia Journalist of the Year by the Catholic Press Association. In addition to America, his writing on religion and culture has appeared in the Washington Post, Catholic News Service and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @zacdayvis.

Donald Trump image by Michael Vadon via Flickr

Topic tags: Zac Davis, Donald Trump, immigration, refugees, baby jails



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Existing comments

This separation of children from an adult was begun under Obama. Hmmm, where was the outrage then?
David Bennett | 29 June 2018

Meanwhile in Australia, we all should be asking ourselves the same questions about children in detention, particularly Aboriginal children, detained in greater proportions than non-Indigenous children, and children detained in Nauru, and in Australian immigrant detention centres. And we should move more rapidly to acknowledging the slaughter of our Indigenous people in the frontier wars, which continued up until 1928, with the officially sanctioned massacre which occurred at Coniston Station, N.T..
Ian Fraser | 29 June 2018

David Bennett, you seem to be wanting some balance of partisan accountability in this matter. Of course, such actions by executive fiat of any US president or any other head of state are profoundly wrong and need to be called out. But, I'm worried this all you've got?
Dr Wayne Sanderson | 01 July 2018

Latin Americans who flee poverty and violence at home and, after transit through Mexico, seek to enter the US without legal authorisation are economic migrants, not refugees. They may be refugees while in Mexico because, while there, they are safe from violence at home. If they continue into the US because they don’t think they will get anything to eat in Mexico but they might get something in the US because of its more robust economy, surely, by definition, they become economic migrants. If there is no such concept as an illegal refugee or asylum-seeker, there certainly is such a thing as an illegal (economic) migrant. It appears that we are now in need of a credible theory of when it is moral for someone, as part of a mass exodus of people fleeing personal disaster from economic scarcity rather than impending death from political persecution, to walk into your country without a visa and be allowed to stay permanently with all the privileges of a citizen, the international refugee protocol seeming, in part, to have become obsolete. If illegal migrants are, by definition, lawbreakers, how can the children they bring share their incarceration unless special illegals-only gaols are built?
Roy Chen Yee | 02 July 2018

Unfortunately with Republicans nowadays (holds true for conservatives in UK, Australia and parts of Europe), any of their independent and ethical voices supporting immigration and immigrants have been shut down. One of these groups is the Cafe con leche Republicans who have tracked both nativists influence inside and outside (ie. lobbying groups) the GOP, while warning of moral hazard, 'disappeared' sometime after Trump came to power. No coincidence that one of the main characters they have highlighted has visited Australia (admirer of the white Australia policy), promoted 'passive eugenics', liaised with neo-Nazis et al. and 'engineered' the 'architecture' of seemingly different groups to promote anti (non European) sentiment (often funded by longstanding oligarchs) including ecological arguments used to influence the left eg. population growth (in the UK too).
Andrew J. Smith | 06 July 2018


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