Our Immigration System Continually Violates the Rights of Children. Do We Still Care?

This has been quite a year. A pandemic, raw racial tensions, contentious elections, and the responsibility of homeschooling kids while maintaining careers are among the widespread issues that have exhausted the emotional reserves of many of us. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of newsworthy events occurring daily—and easy to tune out and save energy for more intimate matters (at least for those of us who have the privilege of making that distinction).

And yet—the New York Times recently brought to light some of the darker aspects of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy of 2018, including direct orders from the Department of Justice to “take away children, no matter how young,” and an intransigent determination to criminally (rather than civilly) prosecute all who cross the border without documentation. This applied even to people exercising their right to seek asylum. Though we knew the policy was horrific—“cruelty in the highest form,” according to Pope Francis; rising “to the level of torture,” as concluded by Physicians for Human Rights—these new details demonstrate the intentionality of our government in inflicting this damage. And more than 500 children who were taken from their parents in 2018 still have not been reunited with their families.

This is not just a consequence of former actions, however: it is still happening. It might have gone unnoticed this summer, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has revamped its family separation policy.

In June, a federal judge ordered that all children held in family detention must be released after twenty days because of the threat of Covid-19. The rate of infection for those in ICE custody is nearly three times that of the general U.S. population, due largely to the impossibility of maintaining social distance and the lack of proper sanitation and hygiene supplies in detention facilities. Judge Gee is correct: detention centers are unsafe, and children should not be there.

Then again, neither should their parents. Unfortunately, the order had no jurisdiction over the release of adult prisoners. Though ICE has the discretion to release all family members into alternative methods to detention, parents have been forced to make an impossible choice between signing a waiver to keep their children with them, and relinquishing custody of their children for the duration of their detainment.

Inflicting this cruelty is unnecessary and unconscionable, clearly violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which maintains that “in all actions concerning children … the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

During this year of crisis, the love of my family is what has sustained me. Now, purportedly in the name of my safety and well-being, our national policies are imposing unimaginable heartbreak upon mothers just like me—families just like mine—compounding the acute stress of the pandemic and the trauma of the dangers that motivated their migration in the first place.

I cannot tune this out.

So, what can I do to be in solidarity with these migrant families? And where can I find the moral energy to do it?

Solidarity is one of the pillars of Catholic social thought (CST), tied closely to the principle of human dignity. Pope Saint John Paul II tells us that solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.” The common good is based on “the dignity, unity and equality of all people” and is defined as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”

To be in solidarity with migrant families, then, it is important to continue to advocate for policies that create conditions for their fulfillment, such as community-based alternatives to detention; protections against family separation and the detention of children; fair hearings and an expanded definition of asylum; increased oversight of ICE and Border Patrol; and the revocation of 287(G), the policy that reinforces the pipeline between local police and ICE detention and deportation. Voting for leaders who will work to reform the immigration system in just ways will be critical. On a more personal level, one of the most effective acts of solidarity is to assist in meeting the needs of established community-based immigrant justice organizations. Further, detained families need American citizens to serve as sponsors, and they often need shelter or transportation upon their release from detention. When migrant children are separated from their parents, American foster parents can offer shelter and support. Even visiting detention centers or writing letters to the people detained can be a welcome source of encouragement.

The thing about solidarity, though, is that solidarity is not just about promoting the dignity of others—it goes much deeper: our own dignity is bound up in how we treat others; our flourishing tied to the flourishing of our neighbors. As Pope Francis reminds us in Fratelli Tutti, “We cannot be indifferent to suffering; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast. Instead, we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering. That is the meaning of dignity.” Unless we stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed, we do not stand in the fullness of our dignity.

Here, I think, is where we find the strength to work for justice. Our lives cannot be full while others are oppressed in our names, and finding ways—however small—to be in solidarity with our neighbors is a critical piece of our flourishing. This should be a continuous movement, not relegated to brief periods of intense outrage: a steady commitment should characterize our solidarity, for the good of those for whom we seek justice and our own emotional wellbeing. To repurpose the well-known paraphrase of Aristotle: [solidarity] is not an act, but a habit.

When we do begin to feel overwhelmed, like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, we should remember that it is Christ—not us—who bears the weight of the world’s injustice. Like Simon of Cyrene, we are called to help Jesus carry his cross, but we are not to take it from him—it is still his to bear. If we remember this, walking in “meekness and [humbleness] of heart” (Matthew 11), then the burden of solidarity will be light, the yoke easy: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength” (Isaiah 40). And though we must help carry the cross, the weight of the world does not fall on our shoulders: Jesus bore all of it already, and he carries it—and all of us—still.

Kathleen Bonnette, Th.D., is the assistant director of the Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Atlantic-Midwest Province.