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In the last six weeks, over 2300 children have been separated from their parents as a result of the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance policy” for unauthorized entry into the United States. This policy change means that every adult, regardless of context, will be detained and criminally prosecuted. It is the logical and natural progression of the long-standing negative and extreme rhetoric on immigration that we have heard from President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Chief of Staff John Kelly. In the wake of growing moral outrage, the administration continues to double down on their narrative – that they have been enforcing the law and following the Bible. In reality, this is political violence in the service of a white nationalist agenda and one more example of the extreme xenophobia of this administration.
Political violence is intentionally perpetrated, supported, or permitted because of a political ideology and the maintenance of a particular political order or political institutions. Most of the families separated under this new policy are fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala and attempting to seek asylum in the United States. At the moment of potential hope, they are once again the victims of political violence, this time at the hands of the United States government. Asylum seekers are being turned away from legal ports of entry. When they come across in other places and present themselves to border patrol to declare asylum, they are being detained and their children have been taken away. And to make it perfectly clear that Central American asylum seekers are not welcome, Sessions has now changed the rules: fleeing systemic gang violence and domestic violence are no longer accepted as cause for asylum.
How did we get here?
This policy did not come out of nowhere. Language matters. As Desmond Tutu notes, “Language creates the reality it describes.” Throughout the campaign, in his inaugural address, and during his presidency, Donald Trump has used xenophobic, incendiary, and dehumanizing language about immigrants. Just yesterday, Trump likened the influx of migrants to an “infestation.” By painting migrants fleeing gang violence as if they are gang members themselves, Trump’s stated goal is to dehumanize all migrants as “animals.” The administration feels empowered because this was his winning campaign message. He is merely doing exactly what he told us he would do if elected.
What does it accomplish?
Jeff Sessions and John Kelly both explicitly state the express goal of the policy was to deter migrants from coming to the United States and seeking asylum. The very premise was to traumatize migrants so that they would stop coming.
El Salvador and Honduras have the two highest murder rates in the world, the majority of which is tied to gang violence. When people are literally fleeing for their lives, how do you deter them from seeking asylum? Trump and Sessions want to be feared more than MS-13 and they are willing to traumatize children to do so. The American Academy of Pediatrics has emphatically stated that separating children from their parents in this way creates irreparable psychological trauma and harm. It is worth noting, in most cases, this is to criminally prosecute a misdemeanor. Legally, the first time someone crosses the border illegally, it is the equivalent of a traffic violation. Hundreds of children are being subjected to irreparable psychological trauma for what is at most a misdemeanor.
In her book Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juarez, theologian Nancy Pineda-Madrid examines the kind of political violence from which these migrants are fleeing. Her book is a stunning analysis for anyone looking to argue against Sessions’ recent decision to remove credible fear of gang violence and domestic violence in these countries as legitimate reasons for granting asylum. Yet, Pineda-Madrid’s examination of the social structure of political violence also helps us understand what is behind Trump’s zero tolerance policy. Like feminicide in Juarez, Trump/Sessions’s policy is an “extreme attempt to construct and inscribe power hierarchies” by devaluing the lives of migrants and does so “for the purpose of asserting unmitigated control.” (16). Additionally, reports of mass deportation hearings make clear there is no due process and an unjust system for investigating and evaluating asylum cases.
Who are we?
America is in the midst of an identity crisis–particularly white Christians. Donald Trump won the majority of this demographic. Faced with images of distraught children, millions are expressing outrage. The most common refrain I am hearing is: “This is not who we are.” It is an almost guttural response – this is not who we are. However, reality is more complicated. White supremacy has long undergirded the dark-side of American history, and the current administration seems to be using that as its playbook. The separation of Native American and African American families was an effective means of control and oppression. Jeff Sessions invocation of Romans 13 is almost verbatim the argument used for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act and segregation. The crisis at the border is but one example of the white supremacist “make America great again” ideology in practice.
Given our history, we cannot simply say this is not who we are. We need to act. We must work to ensure this is not who we will be. At the heart of the American experiment is a belief that as a people we can come together to form a more perfect union. Who we are will continue to be revealed by how we treat scared, distraught children and parents fleeing violence and coming to our door in search of safety and hope. As I complete this piece, there is news that Trump has signed an executive order stopping the policy of family separation. This would be a positive step; however, many questions remain. What will replace it? Will this also end the zero tolerance policy? How will reunification occur? And, we cannot look away from the changes to asylum regulations that were put in place along with family separation.
For American Christians, we should know that more than just our national identity is at stake; for Jesus told us, unequivocally, we will be judged by whether or not we welcomed the stranger. Jesus is that six-year-old little girl crying to call her aunt to come get her. Jesus is her mother arrested and detained. Jesus is her aunt, fearful for her own asylum case, unable to fight for her niece without placing herself and her daughter at greater risk. As I listen once again to the horror stories of both the violence migrants are fleeing and the violence being inflicted on them by the American government, I am left with an unanswered question – who are we?