Do you remember sitting in school and asking yourself how it was possible that so many people tortured others during the Holocaust? Did you wonder how normal, everyday folk were capable of the atrocities of slavery? Did you question what allowed so many people to lose their sense of right and wrong in times when the difference must have seemed so obvious? Are you asking yourself those same questions now?
If you’re not, you should be. We are living at a crossroads in history. A moment that will define who we are as Americans and who we are as human beings. One that will leave the generations to follow asking how we were capable of such inhumanity to our fellow human beings.
Today, as you read this, terrified children are being separated from their parents as they attempt to enter the United States in search of safety. Just a few days ago, at least one small child was literally torn from her mother’s breast when the mother was arrested for attempting to enter the United States.
Imagine that you’re a small child traveling for days across the desert because staying in your home would mean certain death. Then you arrive at your destination only to be taken from the only person you know and the one you love the most. Your captors speak a language you don’t understand and you’re taken to a warehouse, a former Walmart (or even, in the coming days, a tent) where you’re housed with hundreds of strangers who may or may not have good intentions for you. The people who are supposed to take care of you in these shelters have been given orders not to touch you. You don’t know when, or even if, you’ll ever see your family again.
Now imagine that you’re the parent of one of those children. Imagine the helplessness you would feel as the most important person in your life is taken away, the person you are supposed to protect and keep safe. You don’t know where your child has gone, if you’ll see him again, or how to find him once you’re released. Imagine the guilt you would feel because you know that this is because of a harrowing decision you were forced to make in the face of impossible options.
If you can imagine the plight of these people and justify the U.S. government’s policy by saying that this is the law and the law must be followed, I question your understanding of the intent of the law and the purpose of government. If your religious beliefs allow you to spew Bible verses about how the government is ordained by God (incidentally the same Bible verses used to sanction and perpetuate slavery, apartheid and Nazi rule), I question your understanding of Christianity. If you think that this situation is the same as any other criminal separated from his or her family, you clearly do not have an understanding of the horrors faced by those forced to flee their countries. And if you do have that understanding, I question your morality.
Over a six week period from April to May nearly 2000, two thousand, children were separated from their parents by immigration and border control officials when their parents were detained for a crime that is also punishable instead with a $50 fine. Do you know what else imposes a $50 fine? Speeding, running a red light, driving without a license, parking violations.
The parents of these children are fleeing atrocities in Central America and are looking for safety and amnesty in a country that has, admittedly often unwillingly, offered such respite. This is the country that proudly displays the Statue of Liberty at one of its historical ports of entry engraved with Emma Lazurus’ poem reading:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
And now, in 2018, we not only slam the golden door shut, but we separate children from their parents in what is tantamount to torture. This is where regular, everyday people become monsters. They’re not threatened with death to commit atrocities. They’re told that it’s their job and they do it. This is when people who know the difference between right and wrong, somehow, so easily choose wrong. We’re living at a crossroads in history. It’s time we ask ourselves who we’ve become.
Tema Encarnacion works with immigrant children and families in Maryland as an ESOL Specialist. She is an esteemed educator who has been honored as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow by National Geographic Education, by PBS Learning Media as a digital innovator, and by Maryland Public Television as an American Graduate Champion. She currently lives with her husband and two children, Nina and Jonas, outside of Annapolis, MD. You can follow Tema on Twitter @temabell.